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Is all of this compatible with rationality?

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I'm feeling confused about what to believe about meditation because of a couple of examples of clearly irrational beliefs held by teachers/ practitioners I otherwise respect.

I've been meditating for a couple of years and been on a couple of retreats. I got into meditation in part thanks to Sam Harris, and found this website thanks to the slatestarcodex review of Dan's book. Rationality is an important part of who I am and how I try to think.

I love the pragmatism of Dan's book. Also reading The Mind Illuminated and everything Culadasa says about the early stages corresponds with my own experiences. I like that lots of the Dharma teachings seem to map onto modern day neuroscience. I like the clarity I've attained on how my own mind works, a feeling of gradually increasing equanimity, and things like improved sleep and focus.

However I have a couple of major concerns:
- Given the time, effort and risks involved with this path, I would expect to see pretty strong evidence of great benefits. Between the impressive but sometimes hard to relate to descriptions of individual meditators on the spiritual side, and the academic literature on specific applications e.g. for depression, I'm still not fully convinced that going down the hard-core enlightenment path is worth it (versus investing the time in personal relationships and trying to fix world problems through career).

- I keep coming across offputting examples of irrationality in the Dharma world. E.g. I decided to read Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart as it is top of Dan's list of recommended books, but had to put it down after reading a claim about a woman who had cured her own cancer with acupuncture and Chinese medicine (this struck me as pseudoscientific and irresponsible). On retreats, I have found that a lot of the other participants are quite steeped in pseudoscience. Of course, these things don't mean that Dharma practice is incompatible with rationality – they only ring alarm bells about the culture that surrounds it – but it does mean that I feel like I have to be hyper vigilant to separate out truth from more questionable information.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, especially any other rationalists out there! Thanks

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/3/18 10:34 AM as a reply to Alice.
I think a quick answer is that almost all of this is compatible with rationality and materialism, as long as you're properly clear about the distinction between objective and subjective experience:
"Should a model be chosen on preference, or how close it matches reality?"


I think the key here is to differentiate whether your model is trying to explain events in objective/verifiable/testable/external reality, or whether it's trying to explain one's subjective experience. A useful place to start is How An Algorithm Feels From Inside in its distinction of external/material/objective events from subjective experiences. Objective/material events are the sort of thing that you need to use science to study well, and meditation/spirituality has absolutely no extra explanatory power for what's going on. Subjective experiences are what we encounter as we go about our lives, and meditation/spirituality is a set of methods for looking more closely at those experiences so that we can update our [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alief_(mental_state]aliefs) to match our actual experiences.

I believe that most practitioners in pragmatic dharma who refer to the use of a magickal model are referring to how well it explains their subjective experience of reality -- they adopt certain intentions and those intentions yield subjective experiences that match their intentions, including experiencing subjective events that would be fantastically unlikely to take place if our subjective experiences had to correspond one-to-one to external/objective reality. From a scientific materialist point of view, there's no reason that needs to be the case -- all our weird meditation/spirituality events are just neurons firing in someone's head, and we're free to have whatever subjective experiences we want. It's just that we're never going to win the Randi Prize from meditating a lot.

I think it's easy and normal to initially go with a dumbed-down version of how scientific materialism applies to our subjective experience, in which we experience everything exactly the way that science says that our bodies operate. Therefore, we're at the center of our brains looking out at the world and controlling stuff. Nothing extraordinary is possible -- "supernatural" subjective events are just wishful thinking or people misinterpreting their experience. The way that we get stuff done is through formal conscious reasoning and elaborate planning, not through subconscious intention. We're completely separate from our subjective experience of other people -- their emotional state is only relevant in our experience to the degree that it affects the perceived emotional state of our body/mind/centerpoint.

That's obviously a strawman and meditation quickly disproves some of it, but I think it's really worth thinking deeply about what scientific materialism necessarily implies about the limits of subjective experience. My intuition so far is that it's actually a fairly minimal constraint, and that you can go pretty far down the rabbit hole. My default assumption now when I hear someone talk about some seemingly unbelievable experience is to assume that maybe that was actually their literal subjective experience. Maybe they really did have the experience of flying on a giant badger's back to go meet the Buddha. Maybe they became one with the entire universe. Maybe they actually have the literal experience of directly experiencing the emotions of everyone they meet as if they were telepathic.

And that's where the question of preference really has to enter back into it. The evidence seems pretty good that you can start having some pretty crazy experiences if you continue sincerely exploring the limits of spirituality, without ever needing to break actual scientific constraints. On the other hand, lots of people have a great life while believing and working from my earlier strawman model. The middle is an uncomfortable place though -- you've got a enough personal experience to know that you're not in Kansas anymore, you know that some of the spiritual stuff you do improves your subjective experience of life, and yet you haven't subconsciously updated your model of reality enough to match what you're starting to experience.

(from here)

In terms of whether it's worth it, it seems like at a certain point that progress on the path requires letting go at a subconscious level of regular game theory in which you're a unitary agent trading/interacting with separate entities, and moving to a more supererogatory mode where you acknowledge that you need to deeply incorporate a concern for others into your actions, since your subjective experience of other individuals takes place inside your own mind, with only cues like "seems to be located in the center of my head" to differentiate you from others.  I'm only in the early stages of that transition myself, and it can be exceptionally hard at times -- but I can also see that fully completing the transition would allow for a much higher degree of life satisfaction.  

On the examples of irrationality, I think that that points back to the confusion between what's possible in subjective experience and objective/verifiable/testable/external reality.  Traditional spirituality has tons of great tools for working with subjective experience, and so if you're not coming into it with a rationalist/materialist bent, it's very easy to say "my subjective experience with technique X validates my beliefs about the objective effects of technique X", especially since the shadow side of skepticism involves doubting the possibility of what is actually attainable in one's subjective experience.  

There are a decent number of pragmatic dharma practitioners who would self-identify as rationalist, and I know a number from the streamentry subreddit:

https://www.reddit.com/user/PathWithNoEnd
https://www.reddit.com/user/SERIOUSLY_TRY_LSD /  http://99theses.com/ongoing-investigations
https://www.reddit.com/user/vipertree
http://lesswrong.com/lw/5h9/meditation_insight_and_rationality_part_1_of_3/
https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/3/18 10:58 AM as a reply to Alice.
I share your consternation. I deal with it by taking the view that we each are born in a unique social, cultural milieu so evolution has crafted our brains to adapt to diverse circumstances. So what it makes sense to see, how it makes sense to feel, how it makes sense to respond is different in every little family, village, country, etc. We are all so mobile now that we are always clashing with everybody else. What works for one person is probably not what works for most other people that the first guy bumps into unless it's a first cousin living next door.

But it pays to *seem* like you're getting along and agree, so everybody learns reflexive hypocrisy or avoidance or pretension or some such.

I spent 35 years being turned off by various traditions until my experience and understanding of how my brain evolved enough to be open to a meditation tradition that I accidentally bumped into.

So, it takes practicing faith and cultivating an exploratory frame of mind. A short cut is to arbitrarily glom onto someone that seems cool, follow the sh*t out of their thing till you hit A&P and then you are on your own roller coaster that will definitely take you somewhere interesting if you stick with it! emoticon

I don't think the brain is rational in a scientific sense, it's pragmatic in a sociocultural sense.

Paraphrasing a Goenka expression about vipassana: "it is a torturous journey best not begun, but once begun it must be finished".

My understanding of the traditional view is that our relative conduct/success in the world is limited by our knowledge, our ability to concentrate and our wisdom. So maybe try to work on one thing till it seems like you really are at a limit, then focus on working on the other area till you see room for growth back in the original area. Progress is a mutually supportive circular process. Faith is required to bridge the gaps.

I have no traditional education in any of these matters! emoticon  I apologize for sounding like a desk calendar.  

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/3/18 11:14 AM as a reply to Alice.
You really asked two very different questions. 

1.  Is this all rational?  Yep.  You do not need to believe in anything non scientfic or objectively rational to realize what the Buddha realized. Infact, if you are purley rational, it is the only possible conclusion.  The universe had no meaning in it before animals evolved and wont have any after we are gone.  All the meaning we perceive is made up by us and is empty of intrinsic importance, consequence or existence.  That is the staight rational dope.  If you can let yourself sit and accept that, the mind and nervous system become completely relaxed, nothing is labeled as suffering and it is apparent that this is all you and it is all the same and it is all perfect and it is all free of constraint.  We usually call that experience, when it arises in daily life,  love. 

2.  Is it worth it?  No, probably not.  If you can get all the way to the end, then yes, but most cant for all kinds of reasons and get stuck in one place or another.  I honestly think Yoga is a better, smoother path that offers consistent life improvement along the way.  Generally, I would guess that people who dedicate themselves to becoming completely free of delusion do it because they have no other choice. 

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/3/18 2:32 PM as a reply to Alice.
No, I don't think this is very rationalist.

As a former "rationalism"-inspired person I've never thought Sam Harris' writing was very smart - Bernard Williams is probably much better than something like The Moral Landscape - and Slate Star Codex seemed hit or miss especially about politics, but I loved the playful and massive Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Maybe that's slightly more applicable, concerning the intersection of things which are "rational" with things or experiences that maybe aren't.

Plenty of rationalists or materialists seem to get something out of the meditation though. I'd say it's best to try things and judge for yourself. It is good to look with enthusiasm or suspicion to those you would consider to be your epistemic peers, but you won't find the satisfaction you want by looking at/relying on the spectrum of teachers for verifying their scientific literacy against claims and experiences vicariously for you. 

Lots of people know a tiny bit (or a lot) of neuroscience and probably suffer from a narrative "will-to-power" over the whole enterprise of thousands of years of hundreds of traditions of people meditating thinking they can understand what all those people were doing without practicing it. It's probably worse and even less reliable than nutrition science.

A friend of mine said something to me once about a monastery, I think after a couple years of being a monk straight after college.

"None of the monks under thirty believe in reincarnation. All of the monks over thirty do."

(I'd say 1st Path was very valuable, for me would highly recommend over anything if you can make conditions for practice.)

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/3/18 2:40 PM as a reply to Alice.
Is it worth it?  Well, the path cured me of the dissatisfaction, striving and angst that I had felt for decades.  I am much happier now and much more resilient, although I have not reached the end.

It is rational?  I agree with Seth, that the core of the dharma is purely rational, and an incredibly accurate description of the mind, its problems, and their solutions.  How the Buddha came up with all this stuff I do not know, but neuroscience and psychology seem to be constantly confirming, rather than disproving, his ideas.  From a point of view of theoretical competition, prediction and falsification, the dharma is an incredibly successful set of theories.

What about the irrationality?  Here I would say three things.

1. I agree that prayers, intentions, magical thinking seem weird, but they can also be thought of as mobilising the subconscious subminds (per Culadasa's descriptions). These is nothing irrational about methods that help us to mobilise our mental resources.  We have have prejudice against them, but this is simply a matter of taste.  Why not have a prejudice against a belief in god?  Or against drinking coffee before 7am?  Or against positive thinking?  Or against swearing?  It's just a matter of taste, provided the belief in question helps us in our lives.

2. I adopt rational materialism myself, as a useful approximation, but science has its limits.  Scientists frequently believe with great fervour things that turn out to be completely wrong.  For example, George Washington is often reported to have died of a chill - but actually he was bled to death by his doctor who was enthusiastically applying the medical technology of the time - phlebotomy.  Those who make great advances, like Semmelweiss on medical hygeine, or Wegener on plate tectonics, are typically vilified by other scientists. In fact Semmelweiss was hounded into a mental asylum where he was beaten to death by a guard, his research on handwashing was abandoned, and women continued to unnecessatily lose their lives to childbed fever for decades.  That's rationalism for you.  More generally, scientific theories turn out to be approximations of a vastly more complicated world, and attempts to give scientific materialism foundations of bedrock always collapse. For example the British empiricist philosophers Locke, Berekely and Hume eventually adopted views on sense phenomena that are virtually the same as Buddhism, while the logical positivism of Ayer collapsed when people realised that concepts like 'Force' and 'Acceleration' are just as made up and spooky as 'Hope' and 'Justice' (or Magick for that matter). 

3. So what about the weird stuff?  Some of it is just a metaphor, and is worth considering seriously if it helps you in your life.  Some of it is just foolishness or gullibility or is just plain wrong, and you shouldn't take it on board.  But ... the same criticms can be made of the rationalist scientific endeavour.  Look at the behaviour of drug companies, peddling medicines that work badly, backed by distorted research.  Look at the behaviour of scientists as they compete with one another for grants, proselytising, backstabbing competitors, and suppressing fringe communities to avoid sharing resources - and then somehow justifying their own grants as the most rational choice. 

Don't get me wrong.  I am a great fan of rationalism and science, and despite all the problems rational science does work, due to competition.  But the irrationality thats makes you uncomfortable in some Buddhist communities can probably be found just beneath the surface in science too, if you ignore the propaganda and look hard enough. It's just human nature.  To assess the dharma I suggest you apply the scientific test instead - does it work, does it perform better than competing ideas.  For me the answer is yes.

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/3/18 4:07 PM as a reply to Alice.
No, not all of this is compatible with rationality. And thank goodness! There's more to life than the rational. I say this having been trained as a scientist and done NIH-funded research. Never lose your skepticism, but you'll miss out on a lot of you don't keep an open mind.

In a way, isn't it a childlike curiosity and sense of wonder that has driven the best scientists, anyway? Just keep investigating and see what happens. Think of it as an experiment!

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/3/18 4:46 PM as a reply to Alice.
Please don't stop practicing because your mind is trying to fit your practice or worse, what others say about practice, into something called "rational." You will learn as you keep practicing that all meaning, in fact all things, are sourced and mediated by mind. Keep in mind, too, that nothing human beings do is fully "rational." We are simply not wired that way -  which is another realization you will have as your practice matures.

Practice is definitely worth the effort because there's no other way to find out what you are and how your experience and perceptions work. You will discover the source of what Dogen called "the myriad things." He was not exaggerating. 

Also -- you can easily just ignore the opinions and experiences of people who you deem to be irrational and focus solely on the core practice that agrees with you, a la Daniel Ingram and Culadasa. 

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/3/18 9:43 PM as a reply to Alice.
Rational? I think you will laugh hard when you see the truth as you continue onwards. The best advice above is "Keep an open mind". I think I can find nothing more worthy than this path, even though I am still lost somewhere in the middle, if I quit now, it is still a much better place than before. The truth is liberating...
Rationality: “In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” 

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”


And in the end: “When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.”

-Buddha (or some say Buddha)

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/4/18 3:34 AM as a reply to JP.
Wow. This is beautifully said:

"In terms of whether it's worth it, it seems like at a certain point that progress on the path requires letting go at a subconscious level of regular game theory in which you're a unitary agent trading/interacting with separate entities, and moving to a more supererogatory mode where you acknowledge that you need to deeply incorporate a concern for others into your actions, since your subjective experience of other individuals takes place inside your own mind, with only cues like "seems to be located in the center of my head" to differentiate you from others."

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/4/18 3:39 AM as a reply to Yilun Ong.
Yilun Ong:
Rational? I think you will laugh hard when you see the truth as you continue onwards. The best advice above is "Keep an open mind". I think I can find nothing more worthy than this path, even though I am still lost somewhere in the middle, if I quit now, it is still a much better place than before. The truth is liberating...
Rationality: “In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” 

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”


And in the end: “When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.”

-Buddha (or some say Buddha)
This may be my favourite thread. So many amazing and insightful answers. I couldn't say it better than Yilun:

"Rational? I think you will laugh hard when you see the truth as you continue onw
ards. The best advice above is "Keep an open mind"." Definitely some advice to stick to the fridge door! 

Once you reach a certain point with this there is no going back and life just keeps getting more mysterious. 

Re curing cancer with acupuncture; there are many documented cases of spontaneous remissions. Medicine itself is still quite mysterious - one of my close friends was amazed to learn in the first year of his medical degree that we still don't know how paracetamol works! emoticon

http://noetic.org/research/projects/spontaneous-remission/faqs

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/6/18 3:41 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
seth tapper:
You really asked two very different questions. 

1.  Is this all rational?  Yep.  You do not need to believe in anything non scientfic or objectively rational to realize what the Buddha realized. Infact, if you are purley rational, it is the only possible conclusion.  The universe had no meaning in it before animals evolved and wont have any after we are gone.  All the meaning we perceive is made up by us and is empty of intrinsic importance, consequence or existence.  That is the staight rational dope.  If you can let yourself sit and accept that, the mind and nervous system become completely relaxed, nothing is labeled as suffering and it is apparent that this is all you and it is all the same and it is all perfect and it is all free of constraint.  We usually call that experience, when it arises in daily life,  love. 

2.  Is it worth it?  No, probably not.  If you can get all the way to the end, then yes, but most cant for all kinds of reasons and get stuck in one place or another.  I honestly think Yoga is a better, smoother path that offers consistent life improvement along the way.  Generally, I would guess that people who dedicate themselves to becoming completely free of delusion do it because they have no other choice. 

aloha seth and anna,

   I agree with this analysis, pretty much. Except that 1. it isn't at all rational and 2. it is entirely worth it! But anna did ask those two different questions.

   If you want rationality, try philosophy (which I do not disparage). Following the Way involves integrating the shadow side of rationality. Seth's best line here was about people having no choice. You don't choose enlightenment, it chooses you. It is the food that eats you.

   If you feel that following the way is a choice, especially a *rational* choice, then, good luck. Because in the end, it isn't about you.


terry



"Impermanent and swift,
transformed in an instant,
a youthful face will not remain.
Black yarn on the head turns into white threads;
the backbone bends like a bow.
Skin wrinkles like waves over a stormy visage;
cicadas inside the ears chirp all night.
Blossoms fly endlessly over the eyes.
Standing up you take a deep long sigh.
You walk on your cane absentmindedly
or ponder pleasures of younger days
accompanied by today’s worry.
How pitiful, you who regret your old age!
You are like a branch covered in frost.
Among those who have received life in the three realms,
who can avoid arriving here?
Moment to moment nothing stays,
how long are youthful and mature ages?
The four elements decay day by day;
body and mind dwindle night by night.
Once you lie in sickness,
you don’t part from the pillow for a long time.
Even if you keep talking aloud,
what can your talking accomplish?
The six roots have nothing to depend upon
if one breath is cut off.
Your relatives wail into your face.
Your wife and children sadden while rubbing your back.
They call you, but you won’t answer.
They cry for you, but you won’t[…]”

~ryokan

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
4/6/18 6:16 PM as a reply to terry.
Terry "It is the food that eats you."
 
!  Just had to split that out to appreciate it a little more.  Nom nom nom nom.

RE: Is all of this compatible with rationality?
Answer
5/18/18 8:04 PM as a reply to Alice.
Most of my life I have felt exactly as you do on the subject and continued to do so up until my most recent retreat when some stuff started happening to me that kind of shook my rationality to the core. I can't speak for meditation curing cancer as I don't have this understanding on an experiential level, but I will tell you what happened to me which opened up the idea to the possibility.

On day 7 of a 10 day Goenka retreat, I was in the middle of body scanning. I happened to have some gross sensations between my shoulder blades. I decided to stop for a while and observe the components of this sensation on my spine until I noticed that right at the center of it there was a tiny almost indiscernable ticklish sensation for the lack of a better word. Knowing to always focus on the subtler of the sensations, I turned my attention to that tiny tickle.

After some time the tickle started to grow. The gross sensation that it was encapsulated inside of became almost overwhelmingly tight, but I maintained focus. Next the tickling sensation began to grow, and it's containing hard shell grew until it covered about 1/3 of the surface area of my back. I could feel sweat forming on my forehead, but I kept my focus. Finally, seemingly out of nowhere, the hard casing evaporated and poofed away like dust, and the ticklish sensation spilled out like a liquid and then utterly vanished. Immediately that area of my back completely relaxed. 

I thought to myself, "Hmm.. that was very interesting!". So, then I got curious and started to search my body for these types of spots. Everywhere in my body where there was a chronic pain that I thought was related to some old injury evaporated using the same process. Now came the really interesting part.

I began by scanning the surface of my head, and then shifted my focus to the inside of my brain. I scoured every point inside of my head and stopped on blank areas where it seemed there was no sensation. After some time, the blank area would invariably turn into a solidified gross sensation. Once that appeared, I would search it and find the little tickling sensation. I started to notice as I observed the tickle that there were old emotions swimming around in there that I hadn't felt since childhood. Through the same process, I expanded them, and poof. The emotions drained out and disappeared as liquid. Liquid is the only way that I can describe it, obviously I don't think there was any actual liquid. I repeated this technique all over and inside of my body, and each time I released more emotions and more tensions until there were none left. I even did it inside of my hamstrings which were incredibly tight before, and even now I can bend in half at the hips with no effort. Well, they are not quite as loose as they were then, but they've never been like this in my entire life.

The last thing that I was able to fix was my life long misery caused by terrible motion sickness and vertigo. I focused deeply in my right ear until the solidified sensation arose, found the center and waited for the expansion. Wow was this one painful. I thought that I was going to pass out as the worst dizziness I had ever felt manifested about halfway through the expansion. Then it popped, drained away and I have no more car sickness or dizziness. Ever since I was a little kid I would get dizzy just by turning my head to fast, and forget reading in a car. 

There is a correlation between emotional retention and disease that I think is not quite understood. There are healing mechanisms in the body that we don't fully understand. My theory is that first you need to be able to feel the sensation and observe it before the body can begin to fix it. But there is a trick! 

During this whole experience, I noticed that every time I released an emotion from an organ, it was associated with a wall that I had built. For instance, when I was scanning my heart, I came across an emotion of rejection. I noticed that it was encased in a gross sensation, kind of like a buffer; and the whole thing was hidden as a blank area. In fact, this was the case for all of the emotions. First I had to see through the blind spot, then break down the casing (wall) then release the emotion. Often when I released an emotion I would feel a physical part of my body release as well that I didn't even know what tense.

I am positing that by ignoring emotions, our body does what we ask it to do, and encases them in a protective shell, then hides them from our awareness. The side effect of this can manifest as anything from a back ache to physical disease. By removing the root cause, we remove the disease. 

Please don't go berserk on me people, I'm not saying that this is the way things are, but just some interesting things that have happened to me and have opened my mind a bit. As you get deeper into this, you come to realize that statements like, "No, that's not possible because this caused that" make no sense because there is no this or that, but ultimately there is only this, where everything is part of the same system.