Ms. Blue, meet Mr. Green

Blue and Green are refer­ences to the MTG Color Wheel per­son­al­ities. (Very fun read­ing, but not re­quired to un­der­stand this post.)

Ms. Blue: Hi, Mr. Green! Heard you’ve been trav­el­ing re­cently. Where have you been?

Mr. Green: Oh, I’m so glad you asked! I just came back from Bali. I went to a three weeks long work­shop, where they taught us to al­ign our chakras and chan­nel cos­mic en­ergy into our third eye. I’ve gone to differ­ent as­tral planes, be­came one with the uni­verse, and com­muned with god.

Ms. Blue: *Slowly walks back­wards, takes out her phone, and starts di­al­ing the lo­cal psy­chi­a­tric hos­pi­tal.*

Mr. Green: Hey, I’m not crazy!

I’m sure most of you have met or heard some­one who used this kind of lan­guage. I’ve heard it called woo-woo or woo-speak. I’m go­ing to re­fer to it as “mys­ti­cal lan­guage” here, but I’m open to a bet­ter name. For most you, this lan­guage is prob­a­bly an in­stant cue to tune out the listener. They’re ob­vi­ously out of touch with re­al­ity and what they are say­ing is such garbage, that it’s not even worth listen­ing to. I cer­tainly used to have that ex­act re­ac­tion. In this post, I want to show how to ap­proach and un­der­stand this lan­guage, how to learn it, and how you might even de­rive some benefit from it.

Un­der­stand­ing the language

“Con­scious­ness is a quan­tum leap from the phys­i­cal to the non-phys­i­cal di­men­sion.”—Sadhguru

I think one par­tic­u­larly an­noy­ing thing to Ms. Blue and her tribe is how mys­ti­cal lan­guage of­ten bor­rows words and con­cepts from physics, e.g. quan­tum, en­ergy, di­men­sions, re­al­ity, and so on. In physics, there is a clear sep­a­ra­tion of the map and the ter­ri­tory. The ter­ri­tory is the source of truth; it’s the thing that doesn’t go away when you close your eyes. Every­one can look at it and agree on what they’re see­ing. The map is the model we have of the world. If this model is good, it can make ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tions about the ter­ri­tory.

The mys­ti­cal lan­guage has some­thing similar. The ter­ri­tory, how­ever, is your own mind: all the sen­sa­tions as they are oc­cur­ring in this mo­ment. If you’re look­ing at a can­dle, you will likely have mul­ti­ple sen­sa­tions as­so­ci­ated with it: the vi­sual sen­sa­tion of the can­dle, the bright­ness sen­sa­tion from the light, the smell of the burn­ing wax, a warm sen­sa­tion from the flame, per­haps a sense of an ob­server who is watch­ing the can­dle. Our mind does a good job of tak­ing re­lated sen­sa­tions and com­bin­ing them into one. Nor­mally when you look at a can­dle, the only sen­sa­tion you’re aware of is “there is a can­dle.” With a bit of effort you can see the other sen­sa­tions I’ve listed.

The map of this mys­ti­cal ter­ri­tory is the mys­ti­cal lan­guage, which we use to de­scribe the in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience of our minds. If you close your eyes, some of those can­dle sen­sa­tions go away. In the mys­ti­cal lan­guage, we’d say they stop be­ing real. We don’t care about the ob­jec­tive /​ phys­i­cal can­dle. In the mys­ti­cal world view there is no “can­dle” per se, there are only sen­sa­tions in your mind. In fact, if the can­dle wasn’t even lit and your eyes are closed, the can­dle would al­to­gether stop be­ing real. There wouldn’t be any sen­sa­tions in your mind as­so­ci­ated with it. It’s no longer part of the ter­ri­tory. (If you’re still think­ing about the can­dle, though, then that thought is real and part of the ter­ri­tory.)

Us­ing this lan­guage we can build mod­els. This is where all the tra­di­tions, some of which have ex­isted for thou­sands of years, come into play. A lot of them com­mu­ni­cate mod­els that pre­dict what in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience you’ll have if you perform cer­tain ac­tions. Or they give you tools that help you ad­just your in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience to achieve some goal.

Now, it just so hap­pens that the mys­ti­cal lan­guage bor­rowed a lot of words from physics. But the way they’re used is differ­ent. Let’s look at this sen­tence to­gether: “once you be­come en­light­ened, you’ll see the true na­ture of re­al­ity.” Ms. Blue would say: “Real­ity is made of sub­atomic par­ti­cles. You can’t just see them, un­less you’re us­ing a very spe­cial kind of equip­ment. Be­ing en­light­ened cer­tainly won’t let you per­ceive atoms.” But what the sen­tence is re­ally say­ing: “once you be­come en­light­ened, you will have an ex­tremely clear view of all the sen­sa­tions in your mind.”

(To be clear, en­light­en­ment is a very com­pli­cated topic. There are many defi­ni­tions and much de­bate around them. For this and other con­cepts in this post, I’ll be pre­sent­ing a pretty sim­plified view. My pri­mary goal is to help you un­der­stand the mys­ti­cal lan­guage. Once you do, you can learn the con­cepts and de­rive your own defi­ni­tions. Be­cause the defi­ni­tions are ul­ti­mately grounded in your in­ter­nal ex­pe­riences, they lose a lot of fidelity once trans­lated into words.)

In gen­eral, if you trans­late all mys­ti­cal state­ments to be talk­ing about the in­ter­nal ex­pe­riences, they’ll make a lot more sense. Let’s take a few com­mon mys­ti­cal con­cepts and see how we can trans­late them.

En­ergy—there are sen­sa­tions that form a feel­ing of some­thing liquid (or gaseous) that moves within or out­side of your body. When un­packed, it’s likely to be made up of sen­sa­tions of light (vi­sual), warmth, tingling, and ten­sion (phys­i­cal). “Chan­nel­ing en­ergy” is ad­just­ing your state of mind so as to cause these sen­sa­tions to “move” in a cer­tain way, to ap­pear or dis­ap­pear.

Chakras—points in your body where it’s par­tic­u­larly easy to feel cer­tain types of en­er­gies. It’s also par­tic­u­larly easy to vi­su­al­ize /​ feel the en­ergy mov­ing into or out of those places. “Align­ing chakras” is about ad­just­ing your state of mind so as to cause the en­ergy to flow evenly through all chakras.
(Chakras are a great ex­am­ple of a model that pays rent. You can read about chakras, see what pre­dic­tions peo­ple are mak­ing about your in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience when you ex­plore chakras, and then you can go and ex­plore them within your­self to see if the pre­dic­tions are ac­cu­rate.)

Koans—“A moun­tain is a moun­tain. A moun­tain is not a moun­tain.” While you read a koan, you are sup­posed to care­fully watch what’s go­ing on in your mind. Often your mind will stum­ble at some point. By look­ing at the de­tails of that stum­ble, see­ing all the sen­sa­tions that it’s made of, one can progress in in­sight. (More on in­sight later.)

(Com­pare this with a mys­ti­cal defi­ni­tion: “You’re sup­posed to un­der­stand the koan and by un­der­stand­ing it, for­get what you think you un­der­stand and free your mind, which then leads to a progress of in­sight.”)

Tarot—again, this is about care­fully watch­ing your mind. (Have you no­ticed a pat­tern yet?) You don’t need to un­der­stand or be­lieve what the psy­chic or the cards tell you. Just watch what’s hap­pen­ing in your mind. If you ask: “Is my re­la­tion­ship go­ing to work out?”, no­tice what sen­sa­tions arise in that mo­ment. Is there hope? Fear? Warmth? Ten­sion? Black void? Un­tran­scrib­able sen­sa­tion #72? How do the sen­sa­tions change when you’re told that the card that just came up rep­re­sents op­por­tu­nity? What are you hop­ing for? What are you quietly try­ing to push out of your mind? How do you feel when you no­tice how you feel?

Auraswhen you look at a per­son and they are scowl­ing, you might con­clude that they are an­gry. They have a “dan­ger” aura. If I blurred their face, and you were par­tic­u­larly per­cep­tive, you might feel the aura even then, based on their body lan­guage or other cues. Some peo­ple can pick up on pretty sur­pris­ing things, like a per­son be­ing sick or strug­gling with an in­ter­nal dilemma, all the way to be­ing able to “see” things about their fu­ture.A
uras are sub­con­scious vi­sual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of emo­tions (how a per­son is mak­ing you feel /​ pre­sent­ing them­selves) that you be­come con­scious of. Some peo­ple ac­tu­ally have the sen­sa­tion of see­ing the aura, where it’s as real to them as the can­dle light.

(Again, if some­one says: “Hmm, I can tell by your aura that you’re go­ing through some hard times right now. But the or­ange edges tell me that it’s go­ing to pass soon.” Ms. Blue would re­ply: “You can’t tell the fu­ture! Auras aren’t real.” Mr. Green would say: “In­ter­est­ing. I have been some­what anx­ious re­cently about my job. I’m cu­ri­ous why you think it’ll get bet­ter? Maybe I should leave it?”)

Self—“there is no self”, “the self just gets in the way”, “once you prac­tice enough, you’ll have ac­cess to the true self.” One qual­ity that’s pre­sent in a lot of sen­sa­tions is the feel­ing of “this is me.” Re­mem­ber the can­dle ex­am­ple? There are a lot of sen­sa­tions that your mind forms into an over­all sen­sa­tion of a “can­dle.” Like­wise, there are a lot of sen­sa­tions that your mind forms into an over­all sen­sa­tion of “self.” With some prac­tice you can get pretty good at un­pack­ing this sen­sa­tion of “self” into the more gran­u­lar sen­sa­tion blocks from which it’s made. Once you get good at do­ing that, it be­comes less and less mean­ingful to say that some­thing is the “self”. By anal­ogy: is the warmth of the can­dle the can­dle? Is the light? Is the smell?

If you re­call from this post: “… even af­ter you know whether an ob­ject is blue or red, egg or cube, furred or smooth, bright or dark, and whether it con­tains vana­dium or pal­la­dium, it feels like there’s a lef­tover, unan­swered ques­tion: But is it re­ally a blegg?” There is a similar kind of con­fu­sion go­ing on with the sen­sa­tion of “self”. Once you named all the sen­sa­tions that the “self” is made of, it feels like there is an unan­swered ques­tion of “but where is ‘me’?” Your mind usu­ally as­sem­bles it for you, but it’s not that use­ful, ac­tu­ally. Once you’ve seen the re­al­ity of your sen­sa­tions, there is noth­ing more that needs to be said. There is no “self” be­cause you’re see­ing through it (see­ing clearly the com­po­nents from which it’s made, which no longer have the “this is me” qual­ity).

Many words in mys­ti­cal speech are in­di­rect poin­t­ers to some ex­pe­riences. If you fol­low those poin­t­ers, you can of­ten in­duce those ex­pe­riences in­side your own mind so you can take a look at them, or so you can use them as tools to achieve some goal. And at higher lev­els, mys­ti­cal speech can ac­tu­ally in­duce cer­tain ex­pe­riences in your mind with lit­tle effort on your part. (More on that later.)

(By the way, if there is some cryp­tic text you were always cu­ri­ous about, try trans­lat­ing it us­ing this frame­work. Post about it in com­ments. If you still feel con­fused about it, we can figure it out to­gether.)

Of course, most peo­ple aren’t very good at track­ing the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the map and the ter­ri­tory. (Mys­ti­cal or not.) For ex­am­ple, they have a very strong sen­sa­tion that their plane is go­ing to crash. They as­sume that the re­al­ity of the sen­sa­tion trans­lates di­rectly into the ob­jec­tive re­al­ity: they’ve seen the fu­ture and their plane is ac­tu­ally go­ing to crash! Nor­mally, your Sys­tem 2 should save you from these kinds of mis­takes, but just like some ra­tio­nal­ists rely very heav­ily on their Sys­tem 2 (be­cause it’s so de­vel­oped), some mys­ti­cal peo­ple rely very heav­ily on their Sys­tem 1 (be­cause it’s so de­vel­oped).

Bor­row­ing words from physics also con­fuses a lot of peo­ple as well. There are definitely some peo­ple who, when they say “I’m able to feel ev­ery par­ti­cle in my body”, ac­tu­ally be­lieve that they’re able to feel ev­ery phys­i­cal par­ti­cle in the their body. So, while you’re now able to un­der­stand the in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience they’re refer­ring to and can en­gage with them on that Green level, you prob­a­bly won’t get any­where if you start talk­ing about physics (Blue level).

Learn­ing it

“Mor­pheus: Un­for­tu­nately, no one can be told what The Ma­trix is. You have to see it for your­self.”

So how do you learn to un­der­stand and to speak this lan­guage? Un­for­tu­nately, you can read all you want about it, but that’s not go­ing to help you that much. Read­ing might help with in­fer­en­tial dis­tance, but it’s not go­ing to help with ex­pe­ri­en­tial dis­tance. The best course of ac­tion is to ac­tu­ally prac­tice look­ing in­side your mind and care­fully pay at­ten­tion to what you’re see­ing. There are sev­eral ways of do­ing it, but the most com­mon one is med­i­ta­tion.

I’d claim there are fun­da­men­tally two types of med­i­ta­tion. One that prac­tices look­ing at the sen­sa­tions and one the prac­tices vi­su­al­iz­ing (or ma­nipu­lat­ing) cer­tain sen­sa­tions. Many prac­tices do a bit of both. Vi­pas­sana and Zen lean heav­ily on the “look­ing” side. Con­cen­tra­tion and en­ergy prac­tices (like tantra) lean heav­ily on the “vi­su­al­iz­ing” side.

No­tice that nei­ther of these prac­tices are about clear­ing your mind and hav­ing no thoughts! There are many benefits one gets from prac­tic­ing med­i­ta­tion (more on those be­low). Peo­ple hear about those benefits (like a more clear and calm mind) and then think that the way to get there is by forc­ing your­self to be like that (keep your mind com­pletely empty, fight hard against ev­ery thought that comes). It’s like try­ing to be­come rich by buy­ing yachts.

I could write a lot about var­i­ous prac­tices and which ones I think are use­ful. I cer­tainly have some strong opinions there. But this is not the point of the ar­ti­cle. I’ll just say that if you de­cide to prac­tice, it’s helpful to have some­one to talk to. Some­one who has gone through what you’re go­ing to go through. They can un­der­stand what you’ll be ex­pe­rienc­ing and help point out the next steps. There are some prac­tices that can be some­what tem­porar­ily desta­bi­liz­ing, and it’s good to know what you’re get­ting your­self into and have some­one to help you get across those bumps.

What are the benefits?

“Neo: What are you try­ing to tell me? That I can dodge bul­lets?
Mor­pheus: No, Neo. I’m try­ing to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”

If you prac­tice run­ning, you’ll get bet­ter at run­ning. If you prac­tice writ­ing, you’ll get bet­ter at writ­ing. If you prac­tice look­ing in­side your mind and pay­ing at­ten­tion to the sen­sa­tions that arise mo­ment to mo­ment… you’ll gain im­mense in­ter­nal clar­ity.

There are two pri­mary skills one builds with med­i­ta­tion. First is con­cen­tra­tion: abil­ity to fo­cus your at­ten­tion on an ob­ject of your choice (mea­sured by how much of your at­ten­tion is given to the ob­ject, for how long, and with how few dis­trac­tions). Se­cond is in­sight: how clearly are you see­ing the fun­da­men­tal sen­sa­tion blocks from which your mind builds the higher sen­sa­tions (mea­sured by how au­to­matic it is, how gran­u­lar the sen­sa­tions are, and how many of them you can see at once).

There are a lot of benefits you can get from con­cen­tra­tion. You can en­joy things more deeply. You can more eas­ily ”give the per­son you’re in­ter­act­ing with your com­plete, gen­uine, in­ter­ested at­ten­tion.” At higher lev­els you can change your mood, at­tain in­tense states of bliss and tran­quil­ity, or chan­nel your in­ner di­v­ine be­ing.

There are also great benefits you get from in­sight. It be­comes much eas­ier to deal with nega­tive emo­tions, like de­pres­sion or anx­iety. It’s not that they don’t hap­pen any­more, but they lose the power to suck you in, to drag you along, to cap­ture your mind hostage and make ev­ery­thing about them. In­stead, it’s as if some­one wrote on the wall: “You’re sad! You’re hav­ing a bad day!” Uhm, okay..? It’s not that you don’t see it or that the sen­sa­tions aren’t there. They just lose a lot of their power over you.

With high lev­els of in­sight, it be­comes much eas­ier to ac­cess and talk about your in­ter­nal state, es­pe­cially when you can use the mys­ti­cal lan­guage and are talk­ing to some­one who un­der­stands it. When I went to see Jak Noble, a prac­ti­tioner of Chi Nei Tsang, we had a 45 minute chat be­fore the first ses­sion. He was of­ten refer­ring to the Five Ele­ments, which I haven’t stud­ied. But by care­fully listen­ing to him and notic­ing what sen­sa­tions he was point­ing at, I quickly learned to un­der­stand what he was say­ing. I al­lowed his words to guide my in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience un­til I was see what he was point­ing at, which would then let me work on that prob­lem or pick up a new tech­nique. We were able to make sig­nifi­cant progress in the first ses­sion, where he gave me ad­vice that not only made sense to Sys­tem 2, but made deep sense to Sys­tem 1 as well, be­cause it was see­ing the ad­vice through the eyes of this new frame­work. (This and similar, more pow­er­ful types of ex­pe­riences are called “trans­mis­sions”. And it’s one of the rea­sons work­ing with a good teacher can be very helpful. They can say words that will in­duce cer­tain sen­sa­tions in your mind and cause your mind to take the steps nec­es­sary for progress or in­sight.)

The fi­nal gift of in­sight is en­light­en­ment. En­light­en­ment is a per­ma­nent state your mind en­ters where all the sen­sa­tions are per­ceived ex­tremely clearly and au­to­mat­i­cally. Depend­ing on the kind of prac­tice you do, you will get some of these benefits on the way there. This is very use­ful for all tasks where you’re re­quired to look within. Fo­cus­ing, Cir­cling, most kinds of ther­apy, and even just day-to-day ex­is­tence.

A lot of the di­alogue ex­am­ples I’ve given so far were very heavy on mys­ti­cal lan­guage. But, I think al­most all speech has some mea­sure of it. (Scien­tific speech be­ing one no­table ex­cep­tion.) When some­one says: “fol­low your heart,” that’s par­tially mys­ti­cal lan­guage. In fact, most so­cial con­ver­sa­tions are about feel­ing good and helping the other per­son feel good. The in­for­ma­tion that’s be­ing con­veyed in the mean­time is of­ten sec­ondary. Re­cently a few peo­ple wrote very Sys­tem 1 heavy posts on LessWrong and felt like the com­ments were nit­picky. I have a sense that those com­menters fo­cused too much on the literal con­tent of the blog post, with­out pay­ing at­ten­tion to what it made them feel, the land­scape of sen­sa­tions and in­ter­nal ex­pe­riences it opened up. If you see that land­scape, you want to go and play in it, you want to go ex­plore it. If you don’t see it… well, you’re just stuck look­ing at a page with some words on it.

Ms. Red: In front of you is a golden arch. Heavy pur­ple cur­tains hang from the top, ob­scur­ing the en­trance. They are gen­tly sway­ing back and forth in the wind. You do not see what’s be­hind them.

Ms. Blue: Golden? Like, real gold or fake gold? How tall is the arch? And why are the cur­tains swing­ing back and forth? Shouldn’t the wind be in one di­rec­tion?

Mr. Green: I pull back the cur­tains and walk through the arch.

The deep end

“Mor­pheus: You take the red pill, you stay in Won­der­land, and I show you how deep the rab­bit hole goes.”

Yes, things can get even weirder. With high lev­els of in­sight and con­cen­tra­tion, your mind is sen­si­tive enough to no­tice the small­est thoughts/​emo­tions pat­terns and pow­er­ful enough to zoom in on them and make them real (in the mys­ti­cal sense). You can have ex­pe­riences of vis­it­ing other di­men­sions (while sober), feel­ing in­tense and deep con­nec­tion to na­ture, see­ing an­gels, and, yes, you can even get the feel­ing of be­ing with god.

We are more tol­er­ant if these things hap­pen to us in a dream, but when the same in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience hap­pens to us when we’re awake, we might panic or make a big­ger deal out of it than it is. Part of a good train­ing is to learn to rec­og­nize these ex­pe­riences just as they are: tem­po­rary, men­tal con­structs. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn use­ful les­sons from them, but you have be care­ful not to start think­ing they are ob­jec­tively real. (Prob­a­bly not go­ing to be an is­sue for ra­tio­nal­ists.)

I’ll add that for most peo­ple most of these mys­ti­cal ex­pe­riences will be on the milder side. In fact, the more pow­er­ful an ex­pe­rience is, the fewer peo­ple will ex­pe­rience it. There is definitely a power law at play here. (Also, if you’re the type of per­son who has very rich in­ter­nal imagery, you’re more likely to “see” things. I do not, for ex­am­ple. So when I do ex­pe­rience some of these things, they come through more on the so­matic and con­cep­tual chan­nels.)

How far these “pow­ers” go is not quite clear to me, though I am ex­tremely cu­ri­ous. On the far end, I’m very sure there is no per­son who can read my mind and tell me the nine digits I’m think­ing of. (If this hap­pens, I’ll con­vert on the spot.) But in the mid­dle, things get pretty in­ter­est­ing. I’ll leave you with two sto­ries. I’m as sure as I can be that both of these have hap­pened ex­actly as de­scribed, and that the peo­ple in them ex­pe­rienced ex­actly what’s de­scribed. I don’t have a sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tion, though I’m sure one ex­ists.

Story 1: My brother, Vasily, was sit­ting at a restau­rant. His friend, Kevin, an avid prac­ti­tioner of es­o­teric en­ergy and mag­ick tra­di­tions, was sit­ting di­ag­o­nally across the table from him. En­ergy prac­tices are in gen­eral pretty well known for in­duc­ing strange ex­pe­riences, so my brother asked Kevin to show off his skills. Kevin asked Vasily to close his eyes, which he did. A few sec­onds later Vasily felt a small burst of en­ergy in the space beside his right rib, as if the space there was stretched. Vasily didn’t say any­thing, but Kevin asked: “Did you feel that?” Vasily opened his eyes and asked: “Felt what?” Kevin mo­tioned to show the space stretch­ing near his ribs: “That en­ergy.”

Story 2: Kiran Trace was vis­it­ing a very dear friend of hers, Christo­pher. She en­tered his apart­ment and saw him at the other end of the room. Sud­denly, she felt a ball of en­ergy leave her heart chakra and float to­wards the mid­dle of room; as did his. The two en­er­gies met in the mid­dle and cir­cled each other. Kiran pointed to it with­out say­ing any­thing, and Christo­pher pointed to it too, say­ing: “That’s love.”