Mindfulness: the subtler and subtler way

A few days ago, I approached Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True about two-thirds of the way in, and asked if mindfulness had the potential to short-circuit the evolutionary fitness of individual practitioners.

For my money, the answer hinges on a few things:

The level at which it disrupts our self-immiserating habits
Does it bring our circuitry into better alignment with contemporary reality, or does it go as far as to deprogram some of our deep mammalian and even chordate instincts?

– The intensity of the practice
Is it a supplement or a replacement for default social life?

– The facts on the ground
Is there evidence of such a trend in people’s lives?

In short, the question can’t be answered with the resources I have. So allow me to change course a bit, without losing sight of the fundamental issue of what mindfulness meditation does to us.

Skewed toward happiness: an “unseen order”?

In the final chapter or two of the book—which I hadn’t read when I wrote last—Wright gets to the question of whether non-attachment can have lasting, undesirable affect-deadening effects, in addition to its widely-acknowledged anti-anxiety, clarity-inducing benefits.

His answer, broadly: in theory, yes, but in practice, the benefits outweigh the risks to a surprising degree. People who achieve high levels of ambient mindfulness and meditative absorption rarely lose their ability to experience beauty and love—quite the contrary, even. This jibes with my anecdotal observations, and if true, constitutes important information.

In the book’s capstone, Wright gets dangerously close to suggesting this is the case because of inherently benevolent “unseen order”—which I imagine he knows as well as I do to be an incoherent claim. But I understand the temptation. Wright sees in the mindful experience “a world in which metaphysical truth, moral truth, and happiness can align … an order that seems to lie at a level deeper than natural selection itself”. I have felt this way too, in moments of altered consciousness—and I can’t profess to give a full account of why.

Regardless, this sense of synchronicity is not uncommon among Buddhist contemplatives (and similar types); amoral, dead-eyed nihilism, on the other hand, is pretty rare. And people with more robust aesthetic, loving, and moral faculties tend to do pretty well in life—by measures both spiritual and material.

So case closed? Maybe.

But this raises another question: if not an unseen order, what can account for this happiness-skewed asymmetry?

For that, I think we need to revisit the foundation that Wright and other expositors of Buddhist mindfulness teaching use to get people’s attention: What does mindfulness meditation do, and what is it for?

What is it good for?

I’ll come out of the gate and tell you what I think. I don’t think mindfulness meditation is for anything.

Well, at least not anything easily characterized. And even if it were, the purpose-driven wrapping with which pop-Buddhists and self-help coaches pack mindfulness meditation is bound to set practitioners up for disappointment.

Now, I don’t disagree with Wright, or anyone else, about the fact that mindfulness meditation tends to do certain things to its practitioners, like dampening the affective coloring of stimuli and reducing ambient anxiety.

But if you’ve meditated with any frequency, it becomes clear that Wright’s picture is rather limited—in the sense that it focuses almost entirely on mindfulness meditation’s effects on feelings, rather than thoughts. And when I meditate, it’s my thoughts that are most bewildering, and similarly, most stubborn.

To its credit, Why Buddhism Is True is faithful to the most up-to-date cognitive neuroscience, which rejects the idea that there’s a clean, dividing line between the affective and the cognitive. As far as we can tell, stimuli (internal or external) activate emotions, which activate complex cognitive modules, which amplify or dampen emotions, and so on. Rational executive control is indeed, for the most part, an illusion.

But this doesn’t mean that cognition—all the forms of thinking we do—is beside the point. Quite the opposite: even if our conscious thoughts aren’t in control, they are exceptional for their staggering complexity, and the amount of attentional load they take up. And if we pay attention, we can even see something of the structure of cognition for ourselves.

Thinking about thinking about thinking

In my experience, the stickiest observation of my meditating mind has been the recursive, self-referential nature of so many of my thoughts. Just as our snap emotional judgments prompt conscious thoughts, our initial conscious thoughts prompt thoughts in reference to them, and so on, and so on.

Here’s the classic example. You are sitting on a chair in your room, eyes closed, feet on the floor, practicing non-directed mindfulness meditation. You are thinking shame- and inadequacy-tinged thoughts about your lack of success with recent job applications, and you notice yourself thinking those thoughts, tinged with those feelings.

Knowing you’re “supposed to be Zen”, “not let things get to you”, you begin to think ashamed and frustrated thoughts about feeling ashamed and frustrated, which you notice.

At which point, knowing that there’s no right or wrong thought in mindfulness practice, you begin to think ashamed and frustrated thoughts about being frustrated and ashamed about being frustrated and ashamed. This is about as many layers of reference as you can usually hold in your head consciously, but on some level, the spiral winds on in ever-ascending layers of self-reference—a unique kind of personal hell, some have reported.

Expectations about what mindfulness meditation is for have a way of getting people caught up in these spirals. Expectations and prescriptions of any kind, really. (Guidelines and prescriptions exist for a reason, but they all cause problems of one kind or another).

Because the structure of cognition itself is natural and unproblematic, the only issue, if we care about people feeling good and seeing clearly, is getting caught up in it. Which, if I’m being logically honest, is perfectly natural and unproblematic (it’s what we do), unless you’re getting caught up in it. And so on.

How do I free myself from paradox and irrelevance at this point?

The answer comes from my mindfulness practice!

Meditation: not what I thought it was when I started

I’ll start by disclaiming that I started dabbling in meditation without any systematic teaching, barreling into the practice in my typically Western, skeptical, headstrong way. The truth, though, was that I started out by aping cultural caricatures of what meditation is (as is natural). And as far as I can tell, as I mature as a meditator, this will continue to be the case—just in progressively less egregious ways.

In the early days of my meditation practice, my understanding was that the purpose of meditation was to make the mind quiet; to think as few thoughts as possible. This way of thinking about meditation is bound to lead to disappointment. Maybe in the long run, mindfulness meditation will still your chattering mind to some degree. Regardless, you will have thoughts and feelings—and their arising will mostly be beyond your control.

So then, inspired by chats with friends and some experience with Theravadan vipassana instruction, I began to think in more subtle terms. You’re supposed to let your thoughts and feelings happen, without getting attached and chasing them. It’s how you react to thoughts and feelings that’s in your control. This is seemingly closer to the mark, but equally hazardous.

Because maybe in the long run, mindfulness meditation will make you less reactive to your thoughts and feelings. But regardless, you will react to your thoughts and feelings on some level—and if “the ceasing of reactivity” is what you’re expecting, you’re once again bound to be disappointed. Not that there’s anything cosmically wrong, or sinful, about being disappointed—but wouldn’t you rather not be?

Now look: I know that the message of Buddhist meditation teachers, when understood from a place of mature practice and subtlety, is anything but oblivious to this series of traps and disappointments. But the problem I’ve found is that most tend to compress it into a single level of reference—“your practice, right now”—as opposed to talking about mindfulness of thoughts and emotions as an unfolding, ever-evolving process that occurs recursively—that is, at many levels, with reference to itself.

That is, with two prominent 19th century exceptions who’ve helped square the circle for me: the Tibetan dzogchen master, Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol, and the bard of America’s democratic spirit, Walt Whitman.

Radical, recursive acceptance: Whitman and the Tibetan masters

The two most astonishing texts I’ve read in the last few years—Tsokdruk Rangdrol’s “The Flight of The Garuda” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—come from opposite ends of the world, but could be said, elementally, to belong to the same type: long, lyrical rambles through the world of embodied self-inquiry. (I couldn’t recommend either strongly enough, with the caveat that you must read them as if they’re written to you, and about you—because they are.)

But the similarity isn’t just one of type. Because at their core, both dzogchen (the current in Tibetan tantric Buddhism on which “The Flight of The Garuda” expounds) and Whitmanism come down to the teaching of acceptance.

Not kumbaya—acceptance of good things, neutral things, and benign diversity—I’m talking radical, recursive acceptance of all phenomena of mind on every level, including horror, doubt, brokenness, attachment, greed, unsolvable problems, apparent paradoxes, and the mind’s instinctive rejection of all-acceptance itself. Everything in its place, or not in its place.

You’ll notice that acceptance isn’t a metaphysical principle. Nor is it served up as an ethical imperative—if everything is all right on a certain level (note: this doesn’t mean that action, change, and outrage are without their place—I’ve been working on this realization lately, myself), you can’t seriously be obligated to regard the world in a certain way. Rather, it’s an intentional practice for your own practical good, and hopefully for the good of others as well.

I won’t get too deep into Rangdrol and Whitman’s lyric reasoning, but suffice it to say that both are deeply concerned, in their own terms, with twin poisons that Wright and his teachers talk about at length: getting caught up in things, and pushing things away—in other words, attachment and aversion. Acceptance, yet another a-word, makes space for both of these natural human tendencies—that is, not getting caught up in their characterization, and not pushing them away with charms and directed techniques.

Both the dzogchen tradition and Whitman have wisdom to bring to the practice of mindful, recursive acceptance in light of an understanding of cognition as a recursive, bottomless process.

In the case of dzogchen, it’s the practice of trekchod, commonly translated as “cutting through”. The Tibetan masters are keenly aware of how easy it is to get caught up in the inscrutable, bottomless realm of cognition, meta-cognition, and so on—and so they focus on developing techniques (yelling “pat!”, among others) to reveal the futility of perseveration and interrupt the mind’s course. In other words, recognizing the patterns of cognition, and making an effort to take them lightly, whatever they seem capable of doing to you.

In the case of Whitman, it’s the practice of self-kindness. Famously identifying his self with both light and shadow aspects, the exalted and the gross, moss and mica, murderers, syphilitics, prostitutes, and Alamo defenders, the good gray poet conceives of the self as an never-ending, rough-edged, recursive process.

In Whitman’s sanguine heart, this is a beautiful thing to be celebrated and sung. But self-judgment, he recognizes, can be bottomlessly recursive too. So accept whatever your self happens to be identified with, or focusing on, and make an effort to be kind and gentle in your self-assessment, no matter what.

The practice of subtlety can lead anywhere: still, recommended

So on a good day, I find myself able to attain enough of a distance from my circumstances, thoughts, and feelings—a playful, kind, wry distance—and I manage to avoid getting caught up or grossed out quite as often as I did before. I remain a semi-obsessive thinker. But I’m aware—sometimes viscerally, but almost always conceptually—that only so much good can come out of pursuing my thoughts as far as they ask to be pursued.

Going back to the original issue at hand—Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True, and what its claims about mindfulness and evolutionary psychology mean for practitioners’ evolutionary fitness—I think we need to revise the terms of the discussion in light of our now subtler understanding of what it is that mindfulness meditation does, and what it’s for.

If recursive, radical acceptance is, at the base level, what mindfulness practice leads to, it opens up the possibility that one can be mindful in thinking, feeling, or doing just about anything—or, to rephrase things in more popular dharmic terms, it is possible to think, feel, or do anything with less attachment and less aversion.

It’s possible (but as Wright correctly notes, less common than chance) to mindfully lie, steal, kill, or be mean. Less extremely, it’s possible to live a mindful, externally normal life in the materialistic, acquisitive world of 21st century shopping and Tindering apes. Again, mindfulness practice is no substitute for a well-tuned moral compass.

So does mindfulness meditation turn most of its practitioners into socially low-functioning, reproductively useless, saber tooth-cat susceptible chum? Intriguingly, no. And as far as I can tell, the best explanation for it is that mindfulness is a subtler, more nested process of self-reassessment than most of us can make sense of.

Rather than unplugging our mission-critical, heavily redundant circuits, à la Matrix, we get closer and asymptotally closer to an honest dialogue with our own wiring, the major part of which is more useful and precise than we know.

Becoming more aware of the texture of our thoughts and feelings won’t lead us to a blissful, permanent end point. The well is bottomless. But evidently, plumbing its depths is therapeutic—for one reason or another. I should do more of it.

Does mindfulness short-circuit our evolutionary success?

This is a question that can only be answered empirically, but I’ll pose it as theoretical food for thought anyway.

In Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright discusses the relationship between the direct experience of emptiness or formlessness and the dampening of perceptions’ and thoughts’ affective tug. As a meditator, this idea spooks me a bit—partly because when I think about it, it rings true. I remain as obsessive a thinker as almost ever, but emotional reactivity just ain’t what it used to be—for better or worse. (Wasn’t that what I was signing up for?)

Anyway, Wright anticipates this concern and comments:

Remember, for starters, that when I talk about our affect being dampened, our feelings being subdued, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Indeed, I’ve tried to show why certain feelings are a poor guide to reality. And I’ve suggested, more broadly, that the entire infrastructure of feelings should be viewed with a certain suspicion, given that it was built by natural selection, whose ultimate aim isn’t to foster clear perceptions and thoughts but rather to foster the kinds of perceptions and thoughts that have gotten genes spread in the past.

First, I should say, I buy and deeply appreciate Wright’s cognitive-evolutionary approach. Wright’s exploration of mindfulness and the mechanisms it works on gives no quarter to ideas that meditation will tune you up to Darwinian ubermensch-hood.

Rather, his gist is that mindfulness of the body, feelings, and thoughts can help to deprogram a brain that natural selection has wired for perseveration and misery. Again, still fully onboard.

But what’s interesting is that on close inspection, Wright is speaking about our cognitive-evolutionary misery on 2 different levels.

The first is virtually timeless: natural selection would never have produced clear-seeing, untroubled minds, because these kinds of minds would have done a bad job at advancing competitive and reproductive goals.

The second is much more bounded, and makes a claim about our culture outside of evolutionary paradigms: the minds we have were shock-tested by natural selection for Paleolithic conditions, and are causing us misery because of their mismatch to our contemporary situation.

In theory, which of these accounts of our misery turns out to be truer has big implications for what mindfulness meditation means, in practical, everyday terms.

If our minds are as chatty as they are, and our feelings as sticky as they are, because today’s stimuli are less “honest” signals of danger and reward than those encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, then it’s hard to imagine a downside to mindfulness meditation—except that it might make you a bit culturally and morally weird. Which you knew when you signed up, I’d guess!

I’m a 100%, unrepentant fan of letting go of temporally-specific, culturally-specific attachments. Perhaps non-attachment and non-judgment really are the keys to deep happiness. If not, though, those keys lie in elements of the human experience that are universal, long-evolved, time-tested, and antifragile—like love, family, community, and ritual.

But what if the difference between Lascaux Cave and Los Angeles hardly makes a difference in the grand scheme? What if, as Wright more often suggests, natural selection boosted our most fundamental biological drives with a set of cognitive-affective modules designed to rouse us out of satisfaction, and torment us into status-jockeying, mate acquisition, mate-retention, and resource acquisition with no concern for inner peace?

I suspect that this is the major part of the picture—and assuming for a moment that I’m right, this complicates Wright’s argument as to Why Buddhism is true.

On one hand, it proves Buddhist mindfulness practice and folk-psychology to be Herculean in their success at deprogramming some very fundamental circuitry. With sufficient effort and focus, you can effectively tone down tens of millions, nay, hundreds of millions of years’ worth of accumulated system-maximizing, inner-peace-indifferent signals.

But on the other, are we sure we want to do that? Say you sincerely want inner peace, and the dampening or cessation of reactivity that Buddha says will bring it. I know I do. But are you willing to give up everything that makes you a human ape—a loving partner, children, status, material comfort—for it? I don’t think so.

Not that great Buddhist laymen and post-traditional teachers have had to, necessarily. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t some kind of zero-sum dynamic. Caring less and reacting less means grabbing at less, and over time, grabbing at less means getting less. This is true for both the dreck we know we don’t want, and the human experiences we know we need.

So what I mean to ask is: Does mindfulness short-circuit our evolutionary success?

Summer reading list

If you’re interested.

So far:

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark
The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs
Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Taleb
One Way Down (Or Another) by Calder Lorenz
The Map And The Territory by Michel Houellebecq
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

In progress:

After Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

On deck:

The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber
Mindful Tech by David M. Levy
Ulysses by James Joyce

Perennial online favorites:

Gene Expression
Meaningness
Slate Star Codex
Qualia Computing
Edge
Aeon

And—summer listening:

Offa Rex
Kacy & Clayton
Basement Signal
Led Zeppelin
Morrison Hotel by The Doors
No Blues
Bardo Pond
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions
Amalia Rodrigues
Zeca Afonso