Hostage Rescue of Meditation
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The time is ripe for the development of our own language for what we do. What is meditation? Why is it effective? Why is it important? These questions can be answered in novel ways that satisfy our accustomed taste for a reductionist approach grounded in physiology and evolutionary history, while not only leaving room for the mystery and wonder of incremental awakening, but perhaps even enhancing it in ways the priestly fables can no longer accomplish. We are the aberration of terrestrial self-organizing matter capable of exploiting the aberration of excess apperceptive consciousness to achieve profound psychosomatic modulation: if you cannot find that story more thrilling than tales of samsara and the promise of “the extinction of desire”, I cannot help you.
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I have hesitated until now to give a theoretical account of the practice of meditation and its effect on consciousness, despite how popular it might prove to be. I have felt that any such theory would occlude and preclude the actual practice - for which no amount of cheap talk can substitute. However, I have seen that students struggle to make sense of their experience, and that too many promising students are led astray by the seductions of the priests, who are not hindered by the inconvenience of an intellectual conscience.
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What’s the guiding principle?
To explore the threads of neuroscience, looking for our inspiration as meditation practitioners. To provide a guiding light from the much-neglected other end of the project of scientia: that of the humanities. To act like whole human beings for once, and unite for ourselves our accumulated personal experience with likely hypothesis and rigorous method. To fill the enormous and widening gap in neuroscience: that of a viable and deep psychology. To speak for those with more than a passing familiarity with meditative discipline, altered consciousness, psychedelia, the abyss of empathy, a life lived in constant emotional evolution and the formation of character: my task is to speak for those who know much more than they yet know, to represent the deep wells of unconscious competence which animates the human creature, to articulate that psychological acumen which all of us already possess.
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To that end, I’ve taken it upon myself to investigate the best threads of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and information theory. There are gems here for those of us looking to refine our spiritual disciplines: there is more than intellectual candy and short-lived gratification schemes. We will step gingerly around the incessant populist indulgence and arrogant posturing surrounding words like “consciousness” and “intelligence”: these are still recoverable terms which can and should be defined rigorously.
Our criterion is that whatever models we employ and whatever metaphors we propagate, they must prove themselves useful for elucidating our genuine experience: the guiding principle is that every theory should reveal more ambiguity than suppress uncertainty, it should generate more curiosity and passionate questions rather than smug tautological dead-on-arrival endgame-perspectives - as the vast majority of philosophizing seeks to do. You, dear reader, should come away from our conversations inspired and emboldened, remembering the past and imagining the future, a little more prepared to be honest with yourself and articulate with your surroundings. Our work here is an extension of what we want to bring to everything: clarity, appreciation, a falling through the floor, a love affair, a belly laugh, a roll in the mud, a long rambling walk through a mired city and a blossoming wilderness in the cracks and beyond.
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One of the primary sources of confusion in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, is the tangled briar of confusion surrounding the definition of consciousness, coupled with the assumption that fully realized sentience belongs to human beings alone.
They confuse at least 3 things:
Narrative consciousness, which is conditioned by symbolic capacity. Contrary to almost everyone’s assumptions, this is not restricted to human beings because symbolic thinking is not uniquely human: without this caveat we fail to understand its essence, because we continue to ascribe extraorganic origins to something which is profoundly organic.
Apperceptive consciousness, which is the perception of perception. This is even less uniquely human.
Sentience, defined as a functional sensorium with an origin and navigable space. A sense of being-in-a-world, complete with time and space domains, instinctual urgencies, rivals, rituals, crescendoes and transitions: all this is common to all animal life, as any honest ethology will testify.
We ask these questions where almost no one asks them: What is the evolutionary value of the nervous system? Why develop it to such expensive extremes? What is the adaptive value of sentience? What does it mean to “feel”?
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To wrest meditation away from the priests
The purpose of developing a novel scientific language for meditative practice, is to wash it clean of the priestly stink. For centuries now, the postaxial priests have claimed sole right to all serious meditative discipline: among the urbanite western Buddhists this is now most obvious, but previously the Christians and Muslims also participated in seeming to own everything “spiritual”. They called it “contemplation of Christ” and barred all other forms of prayer; they called it “devotion to Allah” and barred all other forms of ecstatic song.
The war for the human soul is not decided. Buddhism in name does not represent a truly serious threat to the future of spirituality, but Buddhist-Christian morality very much does. The goal therefore is to develop an amoral spiritual discipline, one which seeks to exploit the pluripotent present of civilizational maladaptation in order to explore human potential: we do not know what we could become, in the midst of so much error and illness. One thing is certain: the absurdity of hypermodernity may generally crush the human spirit, but it also produces beautiful monsters with unknown powers. This work seeks to be a prelude in the history of the great experiment: what shall we become?
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The priests were the first nihilists: overexposure to the fading rituals of the gods, proximity to the fallout of multilingual literacy and cosmopolitanism, and every usual incentive of the charlatan pushed them to this extreme in the early Axial Age - perhaps even before the merchants and pirates got there with worldweariness…
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Meditation has been employed as just another means of cultural castration: a neurochemical castration and hypoxia; a hypnosis of the instincts of violence.
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The hostage rescue of meditation: the rescue of “spirit”, the rescue of an ideal - but do we want an “ideal”? Or do we want merely the discipline, the attitude of excellence, and not the idiotic worship of the impossible?
I teach meditation as a health regimen. So how do we dispel the priestly stink? By regaining the ancient conception of health: the dry Hippocratic empiricism, the twisting snakes of the rod of Asclepius, the yogic “path of kundalini”, and our own most reductionistic account of neuronal topology can be reconciled.
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Academic scientists are an obstacle
But in the other aisle, sit the cloistered bores who claim sole right to the privileges of knowledge: the academic scientists. They too are an obstacle: they do not want us to succeed.
By no means do they want meditative practice, psychoanalysis, and psychedelia to yield special insight: they refuse the witness of direct bodily experience, because they fear and loathe their bodies. Despite the fact that there is no other criterion of truth but direct experience, despite the fact that the spirit of science is nothing less than the ability to learn from experience, academic scientists no longer cultivate observation nor gather evocative experience. They tweak the dials of machines they lack the engineering discipline and imagination to have invented. They fabricate findings. They exaggerate the importance of their own work. They secure funding and fight for scraps. They are not fundamentally interested in truth: this you must internalize, whenever you are forced to go begging among them for knowledge.
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What you need to keep in mind about academic science at all times: they are not addressing you as the willing student, nor are they directly addressing each other as colleagues, and they are certainly not speaking to the topic itself. They are speaking primarily to those who control access to their funding.
What are they concerned with? Securing and increasing their status.
How do they secure and increase their status? By justifying their existence to those who control funding.
How do they justify their existence? By appealing to the fundamental concern of the university: prestige, which leads to funding.
This is why all the sciences in which there is considerable competition and thus much to gain, such as neuroscience and artificial intelligence, are constantly overstating their knowledge and promising great results in the near future. They must always give the impression that they have recently discovered a vital clue leading to even more impressive results in the next few years: look carefully at nearly any neuroscientific literature from 1910 to 2010 to see this play out at ridiculous scale. In other words, they cannot afford the proper attitude of science: the admission of ignorance. Almost nowhere do they state what they don’t know: the clever student must deduce this for himself. Almost nowhere do they ask simple rigorous questions. Almost nowhere do they take the time to refine their own observational powers and the clarity of their thinking. To do so, would risk giving the impression that they’re not making progress - or at best, only producing trivial and redundant elaborations of established fact. About 99% of all academic research is trivial and redundant. They are in such haste to produce impressive answers, they do not take the time to formulate real questions. The formulation of incisive questions is the signature of genuine education, not the hoarding of answers.
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Neuroscience has largely gone astray and does little more than put on pompous airs. It has followed the paths laid by Emil Kräpelin, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, and B.F. Skinner: the path of brutality, the path of willful stupidity, the path of complicity with civilization’s worst agencies of punitive normalcy.
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That this work on consciousness and meditation is another opportunity to demonstrate our Umwertung: that what we value so much about ourselves - our intelligence, our sapience, our self-reflection - is not itself a source of value but the recipient. That it is the foundations of terrestrial life which yield value. That it is everything we take for granted in the human body that makes us intelligent and wise, if we are so at all. That everything conscious and overt and so celebrated in modernity, is shallow and recent and trivial in comparison to the enormous unconscious intelligence upon which we draw, with every breath.
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How do we talk about meditation from the most inspiring perspective?
As refinement of unconscious intelligence. As hierarchical remobilization. As alignment of prioritization algorithms and refinement of asynchronous function. Neurochemical release is not tantalizing enough. Correlation with regions of white and grey matter is not tantalizing enough. After many years of rumination and circumambulation, we feel convinced - not merely because of how gratifying it might be - that the answer to what meditation is and can be, is to be found among the principles of information theory, signal transduction, topology, and even artificial intelligence.
21st century folk like to think of themselves as embodied computers. As long as the metaphors remain infused with the assumptions of von Neumann architecture, this is patently false: but if we’re careful about the definition of computation, the opportunity reappears. For example, can we demonstrate that meditation is like a defragmentation routine of a neural topology at criticality?
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A word or two about my background:
Science, research, and engineering: I’m a former software engineer, at Google some years ago. This part of my education has probably shaped my approach to “spirituality” more than I can appreciate at close range: what is it to be an engineer but a kind of halfmad tinkerer in many sciences at once? Not only computation and algorithmic design, but information theory, piecemeal statistics, and especially the fine art of scalability is what the experienced code monkey must learn…
An engineer is to a scientist what a touring musician is to a chamber orchestra: half the job is just keeping your shit organized and yourself sane while you try to introduce a little craft and artistry into the messy business.
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I am not a Buddhist. I don’t possess a borrowed Japanese title, nor did a Pakistani pandit bestow a “Gurudev” upon my willing brow. I belong to no order of priests. I belong to no toothy grinning cult. I have been among all these types and examined each in turn: in every case I learned something, but declined to stay. I respect aspects of many traditions but I choose to walk a different path. I have had many teachers but encountered few masters.
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What I hope to demonstrate over the next few months, is that rigorous rationality and profound aesthetic appraisal of mystery, are not only commensurate but mutually reinforcing: the more articulate we become, the more accurately we carve the negative space of ignorance. The more committed we are to a strictly limited but reliable method, the more we can afford expensive admissions of uncertainty. Mystery is not free, but a luxury of clarity.