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.
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 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.
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.
[Edited to add: for my more detailed, later explanation of this topic, see the series of posts starting from A non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence.]