The Tether Theory and the Concrete, Subtle and Causal tiers

Epistemic sta­tus: A bunch of med­i­ta­tion and med­i­ta­tion the­ory. A pre­vi­ously un­doc­u­mented the­ory of this cor­ner of con­scious­ness.

Origi­nal post on my blog bearlamp

The book The Science of Pranayama offers that the thought stream is teth­ered to the breath via the prana, “Just as the bird that is tied to a post by a string”. Med­i­ta­tion the­ory of­ten uses an­i­mal analo­gies like the Ox Herder pic­tures. Point­ing out the great way de­scribes, “It re­quires some effort to tie up a wild camel, and it takes some skill to un­tie the camel and have it stay”. Other wild an­i­mals are also com­mon to de­scribe the un­tamed mind.

I put a lot of thought into this con­cept and ap­ply­ing it fur­ther than it was origi­nally sug­gested. I med­i­tated while try­ing to ob­serve for my­self what was go­ing on and why. There’s some­thing sub­tle about the way a deep breath out will in­ter­act with the thought stream. Feels like a sigh of let­ting go. I watch “emo­tional con­tent” con­ver­sa­tions and when I feel the need to take a deep breath, I no­tice when I don’t and when I should.

The Tiers of sub­jec­tive experience

(Side note: Con­crete is some­times called “gross” and causal is some­times called “very sub­tle” in differ­entmaps)

Con­crete: This is the phys­i­cal, phys­iolog­i­cal. The beat­ing heart, the breath.

A con­crete tier in­jury looks like a bro­ken leg. Or a scratch wound. It takes time to heal. Feel­ing hun­gry is not on the con­crete level, we don’t die from feel­ing hun­gry (we die from star­va­tion). Feel­ing cold usu­ally starts on the sub­tle level but there is a life threat­en­ing feel­ing of cold.

There is a bridge be­tween Con­crete and sub­tle tiers through ex­pe­riences like “goose­bumps” where they reg­ister as a phys­i­cal state and as a sub­tle feel­ing, or some mix of the two.

Sub­tle: This is an aptly named tier be­cause—it’s sub­tle. An ex­pe­rience of the emo­tional sub­jec­tive hap­pens here. I feel happy, I feel guilty. A few “weird” feel­ings and hunches like “gut in­stinct” that seem guid­ing but with­out be­ing as easy to de­scribe as the con­crete tier.

A sub­tle in­jury is a panic at­tack or be­ing dis­traught. It is pos­si­ble to be in an ex­tended state of in­jury to this level but it’s not pos­si­ble to “break a happy” or break a mis­er­able in a way that it be­comes per­ma­nently in­jured and re­quires time to heal like a bro­ken bone or a scratch. It is pos­si­ble to set up a happy so that it leads straight to fear, i.e. “I’m not al­lowed to be happy be­cause that’s when bad things hap­pen”. In this sense, “Happy” and “Fear” are not bro­ken them­selves but they are routed through each other.

Causal: On this level are im­per­sonal ide­olog­i­cal drives. This level is where mean­ing and pur­pose reg­isters. When some­one feels like “mak­ing a differ­ence in the world” or “be­ing part of some­thing greater”, these reg­ister on the causal level, not quite a feel­ing but some­times a drive. The causal level is oc­ca­sion­ally de­scribed as a void or var­i­ous spirit-y phe­nom­ena.

A Causal in­jury might take days, months to be­come clear, it might take days, months or years to heal. An ex­am­ple here is tricky to pin­point but a loss of pur­pose or a dis­con­nec­tion from mean­ing might land here. As a teenager, go­ing through a break up hits the causal tier par­tic­u­larly strongly. As an adult (a di­vorce or) a break up does the same. Re­la­tion­ships of­ten reg­ister on the mean­ing level (for the kegan stage 3 par­tic­u­larly). Where it doesn’t just feel bad, it feels “doom­ing”.

About break ups—the in­ter­est­ing thing to note is that I could “break up” ev­ery day. It would be emo­tion­ally hard, but it would not cause death to me, there’s no “phys­i­cal in­jury” to a “break up” de­spite it prob­a­bly feel­ing worse than a bro­ken bone. For some­thing with “break” in the name, some­thing phys­i­cal did not break. With the open ques­tion of, “what took in­jury in a break up?” (some clues: ex­pec­ta­tions, in­ten­tions, plans, hope). Note: a break up ev­ery day would prob­a­bly start feel­ing like a heart at­tack, or con­versely—com­plete numb­ness.

Not want­ing to down­play the sig­nifi­cance of the causal tier with a soft ex­am­ple like a break up, there are more ide­olog­i­cal con­cepts than break ups on causal tier. Imag­ine be­ing sub­scribed to com­mu­nism and the re­al­i­sa­tion that a life­time of effort in that move­ment was in­effec­tive to­wards it’s goals. Not a phys­i­cal in­jury, likely some as­pect of “feels bad” but there’s also a “aaaah noooo” ex­pe­rience that goes with this shift of un­der­stand­ing.

Where does men­tal ill­ness fit?

The whole model re­lies on a re-con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion of men­tal health as be­ing a differ­ent kind of in­for­ma­tion.

My brief an­swer is, “Not as it seems”. Most men­tal health prob­lems are not states of con­stant emo­tional pain, i.e. de­pres­sion is not an equiv­a­lent “con­stantly bro­ken” ex­pe­rience like a bone or scratch. It’s a mostly calm mind with small nudges to­wards less than amaz­ing de­ci­sions for a very long time. (I can’t say too much in this spot around that—other than, “huh that’s weird, watch this space”). Psy­chosis and ma­nia seems like ex­tended sub­tle tier ex­pe­riences and I’m still try­ing to un­der­stand that.


The lev­els are con­nected with a tether (metaphor­i­cally a string that tugs on them to line up). In var­i­ous cir­cum­stances or peo­ple, the tether changes length or has free­dom de­pend­ing on all kinds of fac­tors. For ex­am­ple in sum­mer I have more en­ergy. I can take on more so­cial ad­ven­tures and play around more with­out feel­ing bad. (Link­ing con­cept SAD)

When I visit a for­eign cul­ture, my tether for “get­ting offended” (Feel­ing offended) is longer be­cause on a causal level I recog­nise there is go­ing to be parts of this cul­ture where I don’t un­der­stand how it works.

It may help to think of boats float­ing on a river, tied to each other. Wher­ever any boat floats, the other boats will be­gin to fol­low. The river is the sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience of the ex­ter­nal world, like sum­mer, liv­ing in a war­zone, be­ing stressed at work, get­ting lots of sleep, etc. There are plenty of ex­am­ples of differ­ent river events that can di­rect the boats to travel around.

Ex­am­ple: Con­crete to Sub­tle Tether

I ex­er­cise. and I ex­er­cise rou­tinely for a month. At some point along the way, my de­pres­sion lifts and my qual­ity of life in­creases. Fur­ther ex­er­cise will help to main­tain my qual­ity of life but it’s not a guaran­tee.

I stop ex­er­cis­ing. I spend a lot of time on the couch and TV-watch­ing. I do this for a few weeks and my de­sire to go out and do in­ter­est­ing ac­tivi­ties diminishes. I feel lethar­gic. I lose mo­ti­va­tion and I won­der why. I feel like, “I should re­ally ex­er­cise” but I don’t nec­es­sar­ily act.

In sum­mer, my phys­i­cal body is warmer. I don’t feel hun­gry as of­ten, and I stay awake longer with­out feel­ing tired. I can ex­er­cise so hard that I in­jure my­self and it can take days of pre­tend­ing I am okay in or­der to seek help. My sub­tle is strongly an­chored in the pre­sent state of the con­crete tier (I still move around fine de­spite in­jury) and my sub­tle takes time to catch up to the re­al­ity of phys­i­cal in­jury. Even­tu­ally I wake up with difficulty mov­ing and my sub­tle tier catches up to feel­ing bad about this.

Th­ese tiers are teth­ered.

Ex­am­ple: Sub­tle to causal tier

I’m happy, cu­ri­ous and ex­cited. It doesn’t mat­ter what I put my time to­wards, I en­joy the ac­tivity that I am do­ing. Wher­ever I choose to en­gage my en­ergy, feels like the thing that I most en­joy. I start new pro­jects with this en­ergy. Ex­plore fun ideas, and seem to have enough spare time to do any­thing I like.

I meet some­one who is kind and gen­er­ous. They are in­volved in a church group. I feel good around them be­cause I recog­nise them as be­ing a great per­son de­spite hav­ing differ­ent be­liefs about which groups to be in­vested in. Even­tu­ally I fol­low them to church be­cause it seems to have been good for them.

Th­ese tiers are teth­ered.

Ex­am­ple: Causal to sub­tle tier

I am work­ing on my favourite hobby. Some­one whose opinion I care about makes a sly com­ment to in­val­i­date my in­ter­est. I laugh a lit­tle. Days later I am frus­trated and an­noyed at re­al­ity. With good med­i­ta­tion prac­tices I could trace the prob­lem back to the com­ment. Without it I would just feel un­com­fortable and con­fused as to why. I spend sev­eral days won­der­ing why ev­ery­thing is shit. Sit­ting on the couch maybe, try­ing des­per­ately to dis­tract my­self. With more ADHD I for­get and am do­ing 101 other pro­jects. With less ADHD I have listless mis­ery.

Without med­i­ta­tion—even­tu­ally I take a shower and have shower-thoughts time to make a lit­tle progress on the prob­lem. It ei­ther stays for­ever, or goes away by me work­ing it out. Or I quit the pro­ject.

Ex­am­ple: Sub­tle to con­crete tier.

I’m mis­er­able. I just went through a break up. I don’t want to move my body. I want to stay in bed. I haven’t show­ered in a few days. I’m eat­ing ice-cream and choco­late but it’s re­ally not helping. Some­how this feels like I am hon­our­ing my emo­tional pain, in an­other way it feels pointless, but ev­ery­thing feels pointless right now.

When I get stressed at work, I eat more. I get home af­ter work and I am starv­ing. I eat choco­late and snacks and I can’t seem to diet. My friends en­courage me to switch to fruit and I do that, I eat the fruit as well. Life is just too hard right now.

Ex­am­ple: Sub­tle to other tiers

I ex­pe­rienced the death of my grand­father. I have an image in my mind of the tem­po­rary na­ture of life. It’s left me a lit­tle shaken for days. I look at all the things he cared about and how some of them never got com­pleted. I won­der about what I’m work­ing to­wards. I don’t rush to work to­day. I’m del­i­cate to my­self for a week or two and I find my­self grad­u­ally float­ing back to where I was in life.

Ex­am­ple: Con­crete to causal

I make friends with a dodgy crowd. They drink heav­ily and they eat un­healthy foods. This is great be­cause drink­ing heav­ily helps me avoid the prob­lems caused by heavy drink­ing. I make this my lifestyle and I reg­u­larly drink to avoid con­nect­ing with my prob­lems around avoid­ing pur­pose in life. So­cial life is fun and I always laugh with my mates. Maybe that’s all there is to life?

Ex­am­ple: Causal to concrete

I be­lieve in be­ing part of some­thing greater. I give coins to home­less peo­ple and I always smile at strangers. I want to make the world a bet­ter place and in these small ways I am con­nect­ing with a higher pur­pose. I know it’s im­por­tant be­cause I reg­u­larly get com­ments about it and en­courage­ment. I start to see peo­ple copy­ing me and I watch a smile spread through a crowd as I pass. I post happy things on so­cial me­dia and I watch as I brighten up peo­ple’s days. I live in a world which I choose to see as happy.

Work­ing with the tiers

The, So you feel like shit­guide starts with the con­crete tier. Have I had a glass of wa­ter to­day? Have I eaten re­cently? Taken med­i­ca­tion? Have I ex­er­cised to­day?

This is an ex­cel­lent strat­egy. The benefit of start­ing with the ground is that it’s easy to fix be­ing un­com­fortable and need­ing a toi­let. Many prac­tices de­scribe them­selves as “ground­ing”. For me, I can check in with my body with a hand­ful of prob­ing ques­tions that I make up my­self.

  • Am I breath­ing? (duh!) Take a deep breath.

  • Am I in­jured?

  • Am I sore? Where?

  • How is my pos­ture?

  • Am I sweat­ing or thirsty?

  • Am I hun­gry? Do I need food?

  • Have I ex­er­cised? Can I go for a walk?

  • Am I cur­rently in phys­i­cal dan­ger?

There is a benefit to ground­ing checks for tak­ing the mind out of past/​pre­sent ru­mi­na­tion and into the pre­sent mo­ment, as well as the op­por­tu­nity to solve these prob­lems if rele­vant.

Fol­low­ing con­crete checks, move on to sub­tle checks.

  • Am I cur­rently dis­traught?

  • Is there some­thing that hap­pened that keeps mak­ing me feel bad?

  • Do I need to com­plete the thoughts about that?

  • What’s the over­all feel­ing qual­ity of the whole saga?

  • Is there some trig­ger that keeps drag­ging me back to emo­tional pain?

  • Can I bring my­self to a calm/​neu­tral space emo­tion­ally?

Once I’m in a calm place on my con­crete and my sub­tle, I can watch to see what’s hap­pen­ing. This will usu­ally mean phys­i­cally be­ing still (sit­ting), emp­ty­ing out the cur­rent thought stream, and watch­ing what hap­pens next. The next place my at­ten­tion goes to­wards is likely to be a causal event.

For ex­am­ple: If I am look­ing at some birds while I wait (a stim­uli). My mind sees one bird go to bite an­other bird. I kinda smile and think about how they re­mind me of lit­tle kids bick­er­ing. Sud­denly I re­call a fight I had with a child­hood friend and how up­set I was. And how peo­ple seem to mi­s­un­der­stand me. And PAUSE. Wow. That’s what’s both­er­ing me on the causal level. The other day I tried to help some­one and they got offended. For all my efforts to help and all my in­ten­tions, I am mad at my­self for failing.

“Mad at my­self for failing”. Clar­ity around what I’m up­set about can al­low me to be com­pas­sion­ate to the part of my­self that wants to do bet­ter. I’m only mad be­cause I want the world to be a bet­ter place, and yeah, I see that. Real­is­ing my drive on a causal level to make the world a bet­ter place helps me see how that tether is linked to my sub­tle emo­tions and how that’s linked to my pro­cras­ti­na­tion on the phys­i­cal level.

I think of my “re­al­is­ing” in the para­graph above as a move­ment on the causal level to loosen the tether be­tween my other causal drive and my sub­tle emo­tional states.

No post of mine is ever com­plete with­out at least one pic­ture, so here it is. An idea (causal level en­tity) that can change the na­ture of teth­ers be­tween the con­crete (so­cial situ­a­tion) and the sub­tle (emo­tion—ex­cite­ment/​anx­ious) tiers.

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Tiers are from in­te­gral the­ory, StAGES model, Bud­dhism sev­eral other the­o­ries that try to amalga­mate the differ­ent sub­jec­tive ex­pe­riences of con­scious­ness. Mine are not full defi­ni­tions of the tiers, es­pe­cially causal (or “very sub­tle”) tier, which I find hard to de­scribe. For the pur­pose of fur­ther dis­cus­sion it may be helpful to treat this as a rough map to some­one else’s con­cept.

Thanks to my draft read­ers.

Meta: I’ve been sit­ting on this post for a few months. Not sure how long it took to write.

word count: 2488

cross posted to less­wrong: https://​​www.greater­​​posts/​​yBhNgJwc7p5Bks3QR/​​the-tether-the­ory-and-the-con­crete-sub­tle-and-causal-tiers