My attempt to explain Looking, insight meditation, and enlightenment in non-mysterious terms

Epistemic sta­tus: pretty con­fi­dent. Based on sev­eral years of med­i­ta­tion ex­pe­rience com­bined with var­i­ous pieces of Bud­dhist the­ory as pop­u­larized in var­i­ous sources, in­clud­ing but not limited to books like The Mind Illu­mi­nated, Mas­ter­ing the Core Teach­ings of the Bud­dha, and The See­ing That Frees; also dis­cus­sions with other peo­ple who have prac­ticed med­i­ta­tion, and scat­ter­ings of cog­ni­tive psy­chol­ogy pa­pers that re­late to the topic. The part that I’m the least con­fi­dent of is the long-term na­ture of en­light­en­ment; I’m spec­u­lat­ing on what comes next based on what I’ve ex­pe­rienced, but have not ac­tu­ally had a full en­light­en­ment. I also sus­pect that differ­ent kinds of tra­di­tions and prac­tices may pro­duce differ­ent kinds of en­light­en­ment states.

While I liked Valen­tine’s re­cent post on ken­sho and its fol­low-ups a lot, one thing that I was an­noyed by were the com­ments that the whole thing can’t be ex­plained from a re­duc­tion­ist, third-per­son per­spec­tive. I agree that such an ex­pla­na­tion can’t pro­duce the nec­es­sary men­tal changes that the ex­pla­na­tion is talk­ing about. But it seemed wrong to me to claim that all of this would be some­how in­trin­si­cally mys­te­ri­ous and im­pos­si­ble to ex­plain on such a level that would give peo­ple at least an in­tel­lec­tual un­der­stand­ing of what Look­ing and en­light­en­ment and all that are. Espe­cially not af­ter I spoke to Val and re­al­ized that hey, I ac­tu­ally do know how to Look, and that thing he’s call­ing ken­sho, that’s hap­pened to me too.

(Note how­ever that ken­sho is a Zen term and I’m un­fa­mil­iar with Zen; I don’t want to use a term which might im­ply that I was go­ing with what­ever the­o­ret­i­cal as­sump­tions Zen might have, so I will just talk about “my ex­pe­rience” when it comes up.)

So here is my at­tempt to give an ex­pla­na­tion. I don’t know if I’ve suc­ceeded, but here goes any­way.

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One of my key con­cepts is go­ing to be cog­ni­tive fu­sion.

Cog­ni­tive fu­sion is a term from Ac­cep­tance and Com­mit­ment Ther­apy (ACT), which refers to a per­son “fus­ing to­gether” with the con­tent of a thought or emo­tion, so that the con­tent is ex­pe­rienced as an ob­jec­tive fact about the world rather than as a men­tal con­struct. The most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of this might be if you get re­ally up­set with some­one else and be­come con­vinced that some­thing was all their fault (even if you had ac­tu­ally done some­thing blame­wor­thy too).

In this ex­am­ple, your anger isn’t let­ting you see clearly, and you can’t step back from your anger to ques­tion it, be­cause you have be­come “fused to­gether” with it and ex­pe­rience ev­ery­thing in terms of the anger’s in­ter­nal logic.

Another emo­tional ex­am­ple might be feel­ings of shame, where it’s easy to ex­pe­rience your­self as a hor­rible per­son and feel that this is the literal truth, rather than be­ing just an emo­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Cog­ni­tive fu­sion isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. If you sud­denly no­tice a car driv­ing to­wards you at a high speed, you don’t want to get stuck pon­der­ing about how the feel­ing of dan­ger is ac­tu­ally a men­tal con­struct pro­duced by your brain. You want to get out of the way as fast as pos­si­ble, with min­i­mal men­tal clut­ter in­terfer­ing with your ac­tions. Like­wise, if you are do­ing pro­gram­ming or math, you want to be­come at least par­tially fused to­gether with your un­der­stand­ing of the do­main, tak­ing its ax­ioms as ob­jec­tive facts so that you can fo­cus on figur­ing out how to work with those ax­ioms and get your de­sired re­sults.

On the other hand, even when do­ing math, it can some­times be use­ful to ques­tion the ax­ioms you’re us­ing. In pro­gram­ming, tak­ing the guaran­tees of your ab­strac­tions as literal ax­ioms can also lead to trou­ble. And while it is use­ful to per­ceive some­thing as ob­jec­tively life-threat­en­ing and out to get you, that per­cep­tion is go­ing to get you in a lot of trou­ble if it’s ac­tu­ally false. Such as if you get into a fight with your ro­man­tic part­ner and as­sume that they ac­tively want to hurt you, when they’re just feel­ing hurt over some­thing that you said.

Cog­ni­tive fu­sion trades flex­i­bil­ity for fo­cus. You will be strongly driven and ca­pa­ble of fo­cus­ing on just the thing that’s your in mind, at the cost of be­ing less likely to no­tice when that thing is ac­tu­ally wrong.

Some sim­ple de­fu­sion tech­niques sug­gested by ACT in­clude things like notic­ing when you’re think­ing some­thing bad about your­self, and pref­ac­ing it with “I’m hav­ing the thought that”. So if you find your­self think­ing “I am a ter­rible per­son”, you can change that into “I’m hav­ing the thought that I am a ter­rible per­son”. Or you can re­peat the word “ter­rible” a hun­dred times, un­til it stops hav­ing any mean­ing. Or you can see if you can ma­nipu­late the way that the thought sounds like in your head, such as turn­ing it into a com­i­cal whine that sounds like it’s from a car­toon, un­til you can no longer take it se­ri­ously. (Eliezer’s cog­ni­tive trope ther­apy should also be con­sid­ered as a cog­ni­tive de­fu­sion tech­nique.) In one way or the other, all of these high­light the fact that the thought or emo­tion is just a men­tal con­struct, mak­ing it eas­ier to ques­tion its truth­ful­ness.

How­ever, man­ag­ing to de­fuse from a thought that is ac­tively both­er­ing you, is a rel­a­tively su­perfi­cial level of de­fu­sion. We must go deeper.

Med­i­ta­tion as cog­ni­tive de­fu­sion practice

While there are many differ­ent forms of med­i­ta­tion, many of them could be rea­son­ably char­ac­ter­ized as prac­tic­ing the skill of in­ten­tional cog­ni­tive de­fu­sion.

One of the most ba­sic forms of med­i­ta­tion is to just con­cen­trate on your breath—or on any other fo­cus that you have hap­pened to choose. Soon, a dis­trac­tion will come up in your mind—some­thing that says that there’s a more im­por­tant thing to do, or that you are bored, or that this isn’t lead­ing any­where.

If you start en­gag­ing with the con­tent of that dis­trac­tion, you’re already failing to keep your fo­cus. That is, if a thought comes to you say­ing that there’s a more im­por­tant thing to do, and you start ar­gu­ing with your­self and try­ing to make a log­i­cal case for why med­i­ta­tion is ac­tu­ally the most im­por­tant thing, then you’ve already been dis­tracted from what­ever it was that you were sup­posed to be fo­cus­ing on. On some level, you have bought into the in­ter­nal logic of the dis­trac­tion, and into the be­lief that the ar­gu­ment must be beaten on its own terms.

What you must do in­stead, is to dis­re­gard the con­tent of the dis­trac­tion. In­stead of be­com­ing fused with its con­tents, de­fuse and redi­rect your at­ten­tion back to­wards your fo­cus. When­ever a new dis­trac­tion rises, do this again.

As your skill im­proves and your at­ten­tion be­comes more re­li­ably an­chored on the fo­cus, you can start learn­ing ad­di­tional skills. If you are do­ing some­thing like the med­i­ta­tion pro­gram out­lined in e.g. The Mind Illu­mi­nated, one of the next steps is to de­velop an aware­ness of dis­trac­tions that are just on the edge of your con­scious­ness, which are not yet dis­tract­ing you but are go­ing to steal your at­ten­tion any mo­ment now. By cul­ti­vat­ing a sen­si­tivity to those sub­tle move­ments of your mind, you are in­creas­ing your abil­ity to no­tice lower-level de­tails of what’s go­ing on in your con­scious­ness, in a way which helps with cog­ni­tive de­fu­sion by mak­ing you more aware of the ways in which your ex­pe­rience is con­structed.

As an ex­am­ple of such in­creased sen­si­tivity, some time back I was do­ing con­cen­tra­tion med­i­ta­tion, us­ing an app which plays the sound of some­thing hit­ting a wood­block, 50 times per minute. As I was con­cen­trat­ing on listen­ing to the sound, I no­ticed that what had origi­nally been just one thing in my ex­pe­rience—a dis­crete sound event—was ac­tu­ally com­posed of many smaller parts. The be­gin­ning and end of the sound were differ­ent, so there were ac­tu­ally two sound sen­sa­tions; and there was a sub­tle vi­su­al­iza­tion of some­thing hit­ting some­thing else; and a sense of mo­tion ac­com­pa­ny­ing that vi­su­al­iza­tion. I had not pre­vi­ously even been fully aware that my mind was au­to­mat­i­cally cre­at­ing a men­tal image of what it thought that the sound rep­re­sented.

Con­tin­u­ing to ob­serve those differ­ent com­po­nents, I be­came more aware of the fact that my vi­su­al­iza­tion of the sound changed over time and be­tween med­i­ta­tion ses­sions, in a rather ar­bi­trary way. Some­times my mind con­jured up a vi­sion of a ham­mer hit­ting a rock in a dwar­ven mine; some­times it was two wooden sticks hit­ting each other; some­times it was drops of wa­ter fal­ling on the screen of my phone.

By it­self, this would mostly just be a cu­ri­os­ity. How­ever, de­vel­op­ing the kind of men­tal pre­ci­sion that ac­tu­ally lets you sep­a­rate your ex­pe­rience into these kinds of small sub­com­po­nents, seems like a pre­req­ui­site for slic­ing your var­i­ous men­tal out­puts in a way which lets you see what they’re made of.

Last sum­mer, I no­ticed my­self hav­ing the thought that I couldn’t be happy, which made me feel bad. And then I no­ticed that as­so­ci­ated with that thought, was a men­tal image of what a happy per­son was like—that image was of a young, cheer­ful, out­go­ing and ex­traverted girl.

In other words, my pro­to­typ­i­cal con­cept of a happy per­son in­cluded not just hap­piness, but ex­traver­sion and high en­ergy as well. And so my mind was com­par­ing my self-con­cepts with this con­cept of hap­piness, notic­ing that I wasn’t that kind of a per­son, and so con­clud­ing that I couldn’t be happy. Real­iz­ing that my con­cept of a “happy per­son” was use­lessly nar­row al­lowed me to fix the prob­lem.

But if we break down what hap­pened with the dys­func­tional “hap­piness con­cept” into slightly smaller steps, some­thing like this seems to have hap­pened:

1) me feel­ing un­happy → 2) men­tal image of a happy per­son → 3) thought that I can’t be happy

No­tice that this has a similar­ity with the way my mind au­to­mat­i­cally pro­duced a vi­su­al­iza­tion for the wood­block sound:

1) sen­sa­tion of the wood­block sound → 2) men­tal image of two wood­blocks hit­ting each other → 3) thought of “oh, it’s two wood­blocks hit­ting each other”

In both cases, some stim­u­lus seemed to have pro­duced a sub­tle men­tal image as a pre­limi­nary in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what the stim­u­lus meant, which then trans­lated into a higher-level ab­stract con­cept. In both cases, some­thing was off about the mid­dle step. In the case of the hap­piness ex­am­ple, I had a too nar­row view of what happy peo­ple are like. With the sound, the prob­lem was that my mind was mak­ing up var­i­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tions of what was mak­ing the sound, de­spite hav­ing too lit­tle data to ac­tu­ally de­ter­mine what it was.

Hav­ing de­vel­oped the abil­ity to no­tice those ear­lier steps in my men­tal pro­cesses, al­lowed me to no­tice a po­ten­tial prob­lem, as op­posed to only be­ing aware of the fi­nal out­put of the pro­cess.

I be­lieve that this kind of thing is what Valen­tine means when he talks about Look­ing: be­ing able to de­velop the nec­es­sary men­tal sharp­ness to no­tice slightly lower-level pro­cess­ing stages in your cog­ni­tive pro­cesses, and study the raw con­cepts which then get turned into higher-level cog­ni­tive con­tent, rather than only see­ing the high-level cog­ni­tive con­tent.

This seems like a core ra­tio­nal­ity skill, since see­ing slightly ear­lier stages of your cog­ni­tive pro­cess helps ques­tion its val­idity, which is to say it makes it eas­ier for you to en­gage in cog­ni­tive de­fu­sion when de­sired. (If the pro­cess seems valid, you can still choose to fuse with it if that pro­vides a benefit.) And be­ing able to ap­ply se­lec­tive cog­ni­tive de­fu­sion means be­ing able to not be­lieve ev­ery­thing that you think, which is an es­sen­tial re­quire­ment for things like ac­tu­ally chang­ing your mind.

Un­der­stand­ing suffering

Un­der­stand­ing suffer­ing is a spe­cial case of Look­ing, but a suffi­ciently im­por­tant one that it de­serves to be briefly dis­cussed in some de­tail.

Usu­ally, most of us are—on some im­plicit level—op­er­at­ing off a be­lief that we need to ex­pe­rience pleas­ant feel­ings and need to avoid ex­pe­rienc­ing un­pleas­ant feel­ings. In a sense, think­ing about get­ting into an un­pleas­ant or painful situ­a­tion may feel al­most like death: if we think that the ex­pe­rience would be un­pleas­ant enough, then no mat­ter how brief it might be, we might do al­most any­thing to avoid end­ing up there.

There’s a sense in which this is ab­surd. After all, a mo­ment of dis­com­fort is just that—a mo­ment of dis­com­fort. By it­self, it won’t do us any last­ing dam­age, and try­ing to avoid can pro­duce worse re­sults even on its own terms.

For in­stance, con­sider the per­son who keeps putting off mak­ing a doc­tor’s ap­point­ment be­cause they sus­pect that there’s some­thing wrong with them. If there re­ally is some­thing se­ri­ously wrong, then the best thing would be to get a di­ag­no­sis as fast as pos­si­ble. And even if it is some­thing harm­less, it would still be bet­ter to find out about that ear­lier rather than later, so as to stop feel­ing the ner­vous about it. Not go­ing to the doc­tor, and con­tin­u­ing to feel ner­vous about it, is about the worst pos­si­ble out­come—even if you cared about avoid­ing dis­com­fort.

On a con­scious level, we re­al­ize that this kind of be­hav­ior is ab­surd. Then we go on do­ing it.

You might say that it’s be­cause there’s a part of us that re­mains cog­ni­tively fused with the alief that all painful ex­pe­riences need to be avoided, and that there’s some­thing vaguely death-like about them.

Typ­i­cally, if we are only talk­ing about rel­a­tively mild dis­com­fort, then that alief doesn’t man­i­fest it­self very strongly. We are okay with the thought of fac­ing mild dis­com­fort. But just as it’s easy to re­main calm and de­fused from feel­ings of anger as long as there isn’t any­thing strongly up­set­ting go­ing on, on some level we will tend to ex­pe­rience cog­ni­tive fu­sion with the “pain is death” alief more and more strongly the worse we ex­pect the pain to be.

The gen­eral way by which in­cor­rect aliefs are changed is by giv­ing the part of your brain hold­ing them, ex­pe­riences about what the world is re­ally like. If you have a dog pho­bia, you might do de­sen­si­ti­za­tion ther­apy, grad­u­ally ex­pos­ing your­self to dogs in con­trol­led cir­cum­stances. Even­tu­ally, see­ing that you have en­coun­tered dogs many times and that it’s safe, your brain up­dates and ceases to have the pho­bia.

Similarly, if you Look at the pro­cess of your­self flinch­ing away from thoughts of painful ex­pe­riences, you will come to di­rectly ex­pe­rience the fact that it’s the flinch­ing away from them that ac­tu­ally pro­duces suffer­ing, and that the thoughts would be harm­less by them­selves.

The dog doesn’t hurt you: it’s your own fear that hurts you. Similarly, pain isn’t bad by it­self, but turns into suffer­ing when we come to be­lieve that we need to avoid it. See­ing this, the parts of your mind that have been do­ing the flinch­ing away, will grad­u­ally start up­dat­ing to­wards not ha­bit­u­ally flinch­ing away.

When I say that it is the au­to­matic flinch­ing away that ac­tu­ally pro­duces suffer­ing, I don’t mean that just in the sense of “putting off painful ex­pe­riences causes us to ex­pe­rience more pain in the long run”. I mean that the pro­cesses in­volved with the flinch­ing away are liter­ally what turns pain into suffer­ing: if you can get the flinch­ing away to stop, pain (whether phys­i­cal or emo­tional) will still be pre­sent as an at­ten­tion sig­nal that flags im­por­tant things into your aware­ness. But nei­ther the ex­pe­rience of pain, nor the thought of ex­pe­rienc­ing pain in the fu­ture, will be ex­pe­rienced as aver­sive any­more. The alief /​ be­lief of “pain is death” will not be ac­tive.

Now, Look­ing at your pro­cess-of-flinch­ing-away in or­der to stop flinch­ing away, is a long and slow pro­cess. We can again com­pare it with get­ting de­sen­si­tized to a pho­bia: even af­ter you have learned to be okay with a mild pho­bia trig­ger (say, a toy dog in the same room with you), you will con­tinue to be freaked out by worse ver­sions of the trig­ger (such as a real dog). It’s very pos­si­ble to have set­backs if a dog at­tacks you or if your life just gen­er­ally gets more stress­ful, and some­times you might show up at a ses­sion and get freaked out by things you thought you were already de­sen­si­tized to. Learn­ing to Look at suffer­ing in or­der to re­duce it is similar.

So what’s all this “look up” and “get out of the car” stuff?

Here’s an anal­ogy.

Sup­pose that one day, you hap­pen to run into a com­plete stranger. You don’t think very much about need­ing to im­press them, and as a re­sult, you come off as re­laxed and charm­ing.

The next day, you’re go­ing on a date with some­one you’re re­ally strongly at­tracted to. You feel that it’s re­ally re­ally im­por­tant for you to make a good im­pres­sion, and be­cause you keep ob­sess­ing about this thought, you can’t re­lax, act nor­mal, and ac­tu­ally make a good im­pres­sion.

Sup­pose that you re­mem­ber all that stuff about cog­ni­tive fu­sion. You might (cor­rectly) think that if you man­aged to de­fuse from the thought of this be­ing an im­por­tant en­counter, then all of this would be less stress­ful and you might ac­tu­ally make a good im­pres­sion.

But this brings up a par­tic­u­lar difficulty: it can be rel­a­tively easy to de­fuse from a thought that you on some level be­lieve is, or at least may be, false. But it’s a lot harder to de­fuse from a thought which you be­lieve on a deep level to ac­tu­ally be true, but which it’s just coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to think about.

After all, if you re­ally are strongly in­ter­ested in this per­son, but might not have an op­por­tu­nity to meet with them again if you make a bad im­pres­sion… then it is im­por­tant for you to make a good im­pres­sion on them now. De­fus­ing from the thought of this be­ing im­por­tant, would mean that you be­lieved less in this be­ing im­por­tant, mean­ing that you might do some­thing that ac­tu­ally left a bad im­pres­sion on them!

You can’t de­fuse from the con­tent of a be­lief, if your mo­ti­va­tion for want­ing to de­fuse from it is the be­lief it­self. In try­ing to re­ject the be­lief that mak­ing a good im­pres­sion is im­por­tant, and try­ing to do this with the mo­tive of mak­ing a good im­pres­sion, you just re­in­force the be­lief that this is im­por­tant. If you want to ac­tu­ally de­fuse from the be­lief, your mo­tive for do­ing so has to come from some­where else than the be­lief it­self.

The gen­eral form of this thing is what makes big green bats com­plain that you’re still not get­ting out of the car. Or peo­ple who are aware of their cell phones, that you’re still not look­ing up. You are fused with some be­lief or con­cep­tual sys­tem while try­ing to use that very same be­lief or con­cep­tual sys­tem to de­fuse your­self from it, which keeps you trapped in it. In­stead, you could just stop us­ing it, and then you’d be free.

Of course, this is eas­ier said than done. Even if you know that this is what you’re do­ing, know­ing it isn’t enough to stop do­ing it. Essen­tially, you have to some­how dis­tract your­self from the be­lief you’re caught up with… but if your be­lief is that this thing is re­ally im­por­tant, then be­fore you could dis­tract your­self from it, you’d need to dis­tract your­self from it, so as to stop wor­ry­ing about the po­ten­tial con­se­quences of hav­ing dis­tracted your­self from it.

Yeah.

All of this par­tic­u­larly ap­plies for try­ing to over­come suffer­ing. Be­cause re­mem­ber, suffer­ing is caused by a be­lief that pain is in­trin­si­cally bad. That be­lief is what causes you to try to flinch away from pain in a way which, by it­self, cre­ates the suffer­ing.

So if you are ex­pe­rienc­ing some re­ally pow­er­ful emo­tion that’s caus­ing you a lot of suffer­ing, mak­ing you want to de­fuse from it so that you could stop feel­ing those bad things?

Well, then you are try­ing to be okay with feel­ing bad things, so that you could stop feel­ing bad things. Again, your mo­tive for want­ing to de­fuse from a be­lief, is dig­ging you deeper into the be­lief.

On the sur­face, this would seem to sug­gest that you can only use Look­ing to stop suffer­ing in cases of rel­a­tively mild pain, where you don’t re­ally even care all that much about whether you’re in pain or not. Look­ing would only help you feel bet­ter in the cases when you’d need it the least any­way.

And to be hon­est, a lot of the time it does feel that way.

For­tu­nately, there is a solu­tion.

The three marks

I pre­vi­ously men­tioned that there’s some­thing ab­surd about the be­lief that pain would need to be avoided: af­ter all, if some­thing re­ally painful hap­pens, then that won’t kill us: usu­ally it only means that, well, some­thing re­ally painful has hap­pened. We might be left trau­ma­tized, but that trauma is by it­self also just more pain.

It’s as if a deep part of our minds is de­luded about just how world-end­ing the pain is in the first place.

Bud­dhist the­ory states that that delu­sion arises from deep parts of our minds be­ing wrong about some fun­da­men­tal as­pects of ex­is­tence, tra­di­tion­ally called the three marks: im­per­ma­nence, un­satis­fac­tori­ness, and no-self. If we can make our­selves cu­ri­ous about the true na­ture of ex­is­tence, and Look deeply enough into just how our mind works, we can even­tu­ally wit­ness things about how our mind works which con­tra­dict those delu­sions.

Do that of­ten and deep enough, and the delu­sions shat­ter.

This al­lows us to ac­tu­ally over­come suffer­ing, be­cause in or­der to ex­plore the na­ture of the self, we do not need to always be mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to make the suffer­ing stop. Rather, we can be mo­ti­vated by things like cu­ri­os­ity or a de­sire to help other peo­ple, and ex­plore the work­ings of our mind dur­ing times when we are not in ter­rible pain.

There will be a time when this hap­pens on a suffi­ciently deep level that a per­son be­comes con­vinced of full en­light­en­ment be­ing pos­si­ble. Typ­i­cally, the first time will be enough to let them get a taste of what it’s like to live with­out delu­sions; but their in­sights are not yet deep enough to cause a per­ma­nent change, and the delu­sions will soon re­gen­er­ate them­selves.

Still, the delu­sions will not re­gen­er­ate en­tirely: some­thing will have shifted per­ma­nently, in a way that makes it eas­ier to make fur­ther progress on dis­solv­ing them.

While it is im­pos­si­ble to use words to con­vey the ex­pe­rience of get­ting in­sight into the three marks of ex­is­tence, it is pos­si­ble to offer a third-per­son per­spec­tive on what ex­actly it is that our minds are mis­taken about. Of the three marks, no-self may be the eas­iest to ex­plain in these terms.

In the book The Mind Illu­mi­nated, the Bud­dhist model of psy­chol­ogy is de­scribed as one where our minds are com­posed of a large num­ber of sub­agents, which share in­for­ma­tion by send­ing var­i­ous per­cepts into con­scious­ness. There’s one par­tic­u­lar sub­agent, the ‘nar­rat­ing mind’ which takes these per­cepts and binds them to­gether by gen­er­at­ing a story of there ex­ist­ing one sin­gle agent, an I, to which ev­ery­thing hap­pens. The fun­da­men­tal delu­sion is when this fic­tional con­struct of an I is mis­taken for an ac­tu­ally-ex­ist­ing en­tity, which needs to be pro­tected by ac­quiring per­cepts with a pos­i­tive emo­tional tone and avoid­ing per­cepts with a nega­tive one.

When a per­son be­comes ca­pa­ble of ob­serv­ing in suffi­cient de­tail the men­tal pro­cess by which this sense of an I is con­structed, the delu­sion of its in­de­pen­dent ex­is­tence is bro­ken. After­wards, while the mind will con­tinue to use the con­cept “I” as an or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple, it be­comes cor­rectly ex­pe­rienced as a the­o­ret­i­cal fic­tion rather than some­thing that could be harmed or helped by the ex­pe­rience of “bad” or “good” emo­tions. As a re­sult, de­sire and aver­sion to­wards hav­ing spe­cific states of mind (and thus suffer­ing) cease. We cease to flinch away from pain, see­ing that we do not need to avoid them in or­der to pro­tect the “I”.

On why en­light­en­ment may not be very visi­ble in one’s behavior

In the com­ments of the ken­sho post, cousin_it men­tioned hav­ing read sev­eral re­ports of peo­ple claiming en­light­en­ment… yet not seem­ing to re­ally demon­strate it by hav­ing bet­ter emo­tional skills. A pa­per also re­ported on var­i­ous peo­ple hav­ing achieved some kinds of ad­vanced med­i­ta­tive states… but still not be­ing all that differ­ent when viewed from the out­side:

There seemed to be a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween a PNSE par­ti­ci­pant’s per­son­al­ity and their un­der­ly­ing sense of hav­ing an in­di­vi­d­u­al­ized sense of self. When the lat­ter is ab­sent, the former seems to be able to con­tinue to func­tion rel­a­tively un­abated. There are ex­cep­tions. For ex­am­ple, the change in well-be­ing in par­ti­ci­pants who were de­pressed prior to the on­set of PNSE was ob­vi­ously spot­ted by those around them. Gen­er­ally, how­ever, the ex­ter­nal changes were not sig­nifi­cant enough to be de­tected, even by those clos­est to the par­ti­ci­pant.

Based on how I ex­pe­rienced things when I had the ex­pe­rience that made en­light­en­ment seem within reach, some­thing like a lack of no­tice­able change is in fact ex­actly what I would ex­pect from many peo­ple who be­come en­light­ened.

Re­mem­ber, en­light­en­ment means that you no longer ex­pe­rience emo­tional pain as aver­sive. In other words, you con­tinue to have “nega­tive” emo­tions like fear, anger, jeal­ousy, and so on—you just don’t mind hav­ing them.

This does end up chang­ing some of your emo­tional land­scape. My ex­pe­rience was that since feel­ing crappy felt like an okay thing to hap­pen, the thought of hav­ing nega­tive ex­pe­riences in the fu­ture no longer stressed me out. This brought with it a sense of calm, since I knew that I was in some sense “in­vuln­er­a­ble” to any­thing that might hap­pen. But the state of calm­ness was more of a re­sult of ev­ery­thing be­ing okay—a con­se­quence of there no longer be­ing any­thing that would be a gen­uine threat—rather than a per­ma­nent emo­tional state.

That emo­tion of calm could still be mo­men­tar­ily re­placed by other emo­tional states as nor­mal, it was just that one par­tic­u­lar source of nega­tive feel­ings (the fear of fu­ture nega­tive feel­ings) was elimi­nated. I would still feel sad­ness about the things I nor­mally feel sad about, anger about the things I nor­mally feel an­gry about, and so on. And be­cause those emo­tions no longer felt aver­sive, I didn’t have a rea­son to in­vest in not feel­ing those things—un­less I had some other rea­son than the in­trin­sic aver­sive­ness of an emo­tion to do so.

My model here is that en­light­en­ment doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally make you a good per­son, nor par­tic­u­larly emo­tion­ally bal­anced, or any­thing like that. If you were a jeal­ous wreck be­fore, but felt like it was to­tally jus­tified and right for you to be­have jeal­ously… then see­ing through the illu­sion of the self isn’t go­ing to clear those cog­ni­tive struc­tures from your head. It can help you de­fuse from them enough to see that your jus­tifi­ca­tions are es­sen­tially ar­bi­trary—but at the same time, you may also have de­fused from any cog­ni­tive struc­tures that say that there’s some­thing bad about hav­ing es­sen­tially ar­bi­trary jus­tifi­ca­tions.

To put it differ­ently: one way of de­scribing my ex­pe­rience was that it felt like an ex­treme mo­ment of cog­ni­tive de­fu­sion, where I de­fused from my en­tire mo­ti­va­tional sys­tem, and could just watch its op­er­a­tion from the out­side.

But the thing is, if you truly step out­side your en­tire mo­ti­va­tional sys­tem, then that leaves the part that just stepped out with no mo­ti­va­tional sys­tem, leav­ing the ex­ist­ing one op­er­at­ing as nor­mal.

Sup­pose that you are think­ing some­thing like, “aha! step­ping out­side my whole mo­ti­va­tional sys­tem means that I’m fi­nally free to do thing X, which stupid in­ter­nal con­flicts have been block­ing me from do­ing so far!”

But if you are think­ing that, then you are still work­ing in­side a mo­ti­va­tional sys­tem where it’s im­por­tant to achieve X. (Still not step­ping out of the car.) If you have truly de­fused from your mo­ti­va­tional sys­tem, then you have no par­tic­u­lar de­sire to change the things in your mind that in­fluence whether you are go­ing to achieve X or not.

Even if you man­age to step out­side the sys­tem, the sys­tem is still go­ing to keep do­ing var­i­ous things—like tak­ing your body to the store to get food—that it has learned to do: be­ing de­fused from a mo­ti­va­tion doesn’t mean that the mo­ti­va­tion would nec­es­sar­ily dis­ap­pear or stop in­fluenc­ing your be­hav­ior. It just means that you can ex­am­ine its val­idity as it goes on.

And if you see your­self go­ing to the store to get some food, well, why not go along with that? After all, to stop act­ing as you always have, would re­quire some spe­cial mo­ti­va­tion to do so. All of your mo­ti­va­tions ex­ist within the sys­tem. If you pre­vi­ously had a mo­ti­va­tion to change some­thing about your own be­hav­ior, but also had un­der­ly­ing psy­cholog­i­cal rea­sons why you hadn’t changed your be­hav­ior yet, then en­light­en­ment may leave that bal­ance of com­pet­ing mo­ti­va­tions ba­si­cally un­altered. You may still have men­tal pro­cesses strug­gling against each other and you may ex­pe­rience in­ter­nal con­flict as nor­mal: the only differ­ence is that you won’t suffer from that in­ter­nal con­flict.

Does this con­tra­dict the peo­ple who say that med­i­ta­tion will make you ac­tively happy?

No: it only means that Look­ing at the na­ture of suffer­ing might not make you ac­tively happy (in the sense of ex­pe­rienc­ing lots of pos­i­tive emo­tions). Re­mem­ber that there are many things that you can Look at: med­i­ta­tion is es­sen­tially fo­cus­ing your at­ten­tion on some­thing, and what you fo­cus on makes a ma­jor differ­ence.

I think in terms of med­i­ta­tive prac­tices that work within an ex­ist­ing sys­tem (of plea­sure and pain), ver­sus ones that try to move you out­side the sys­tem en­tirely. Some tra­di­tions fo­cus on work­ing in­side the sys­tem, and may in­volve things like con­di­tion­ing your mind for con­stant plea­sure. Some sys­tems com­bine the two, in­volv­ing both prac­tices which in­crease the amount of plea­sure you’ll ex­pe­rience, while also helping you be okay even with ex­pe­rienc­ing less plea­sure. The Mind Illu­mi­nated takes this ap­proach, for ex­am­ple.

And if en­light­en­ment leaves your ex­ist­ing per­son­al­ity re­mains mostly in­tact, does it mean that Look­ing and med­i­ta­tion are use­less for im­prov­ing your ra­tio­nal­ity af­ter all?

No. Again, it only means that Look­ing at the things which cause suffer­ing, will not change your be­hav­ior as much as you might ex­pect. Again, there are many differ­ent things about the func­tion­ing of your mind that you can Look at. And get­ting to the point where’re you’re en­light­ened, re­quires train­ing up a lot of men­tal pre­ci­sion which you can then use to Look at var­i­ous things.

Even if you do man­age to de­fuse from ev­ery­thing that causes you suffer­ing, your ex­ist­ing per­son­al­ity and mo­ti­va­tional sys­tem will still be in charge of what it is that you Look at in the fu­ture. If all you cared about was ceas­ing to suffer, well, you’re done! You might not have the mo­ti­va­tion to do any more Look­ing on top of that, since it already got you what you wanted. You’ll just go on liv­ing as nor­mal, with your ex­ist­ing per­son­al­ity.

But if you cared about things like sav­ing the world, then you will still con­tinue to work on sav­ing the world, and you will be Look­ing at things which will help you save the world—in­clud­ing ones that in­crease your ra­tio­nal­ity.

It’s just that if the world ends up end­ing, it won’t feel like the end of the world.

Of course, you will still feel in­tense grief and dis­ap­point­ment and ev­ery­thing that you’d ex­pect to feel about the world end­ing.

In­tense grief and dis­ap­point­ment just won’t be the end of the world.