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Stuff [Jul. 4th, 2012|01:32 am]
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Buddhist texts cheerfully declare one can reach enlightenment only by meditating for "as long as it takes to wear a granite mountain down to the ground by a fine veil brushing its top once every hundred years". Some Mahayana schools fix the time required at, and I quote, "three uncountable eons" (I like this turn of phrase, because of how the "three" gives it a thin veneer of precision, kind of like the term "metric shitload"). The huge selling point of Vajrayana Buddhism is that, if you have a great teacher and practice everything perfectly, maybe you can get enlightenment in a single lifetime.

Compare this to martial arts, where instructors can say "In three months, you'll know some basic kicks and punches and will get this shiny yellow belt. In six months you'll be able to break wooden boards and will get this lovely green belt."

As someone who tends to start studying a few days before big examinations, my reward function definitely doesn't operate on a scale of even one uncountable eon, let alone three of them. Maybe it can wait the few months it takes to get a different color belt, but no more. When I get bored of meditating, thinking "this may pay off in three uncountable eons, assuming very sketchy ancient texts were mysteriously correct about the fundamental nature of the universe" isn't a very strong motivator. But to whatever weak degree I am goal-directed, it's always been about understanding what the heck the mind is - and to think that there's this legendary-monk-approved and scientifically-kinda-verified way of doing that (and simultaneously gaining a magical power) which I'm avoiding just because I don't have the willpower is pretty galling.

And I feel silly talking about it, because the party line has always been that if you're looking for rewards from meditation, You're Doing It Wrong. Desire is the root of all suffering, right action must be detached from lust for result, and one gains absolutely nothing from Supreme Enlightenment which is why it is called Supreme Enlightenment. Certainly it's official doctrine that the more you try to get something from meditation, the less you'll end up getting; there's even a suggested form of meditation in which you sit quietly, notice whenever you're trying to meditate (in the sense of "actively pursue some state") and make yourself stop.

You could not design a better way to frustrate human reinforcement learning. Which could mean that's exactly what it is - a technique to rewire the reward system. And that's all nice and well, but it's why I've never been able to seriously pursue meditation for more than a few months at a time.

It's also why I've had much better luck with lucid dreaming. As a very Western skill (some Buddhists did invent it way back, but most of the lucid dreaming literature around was developed by Westerners independently of the older traditions), the "avoid craving for reward" attitude has been replaced by your standard Protestant work ethic. Books even make promises like "If you work at this hard enough, you'll see results in a couple of months", and those promises have proven mostly true. And some of the skills involved - attentiveness and concentration - are a lot like the skills involved in meditation and I'm hoping they cross-fertilize.

And recently I have learned from muflax's blog about the jhanas, which seem to be that elusive meditative equivalent of a green belt - something difficult enough to work for, but easy enough to be accomplished in fewer than three uncountable eons. And apparently the state is pleasant enough to be instrinsically rewarding once you reach it. Sure, that teacher says "the likelihood of you experiencing a jhana is inversely proportional to the amount of desire that you have for it", but that seems like an acceptable level of perversity to put up with at this point.

One thing I've liked about that same cluster of Buddhist teachers are their works on how to avoid getting magic powers. I feel like any religion with explicit teachings on how to not have magic powers is a religion one can trust.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-07-04 06:21 am (UTC)

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Whereas I have shit luck with lucid dreaming, but do "okay" with meditation. Which is to say: when I meditate consistently I at least feel happier/less stressed/like a better person. Even when I'm in a dream and I KNOW IT'S A DREAM, I can't do anything about it and end up in this weird psychological state of being simultaneously stressed out by my circumstances as well as apathetic towards them.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-07-04 02:23 pm (UTC)

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My problem is that I'm very aware of the placebo effect and not too good at evaluating subtle gradations in my stress level. I think even if meditation does make me a little less stressed, I'm unlikely to be certain enough it's a real effect to point to it as a "reward" and continue doing it.
[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-07-05 04:26 am (UTC)

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Granted I think a lot of it comes not necessarily from the activity itself but from the knowledge that I am participating in said activity. "I did something I deem worthwhile therefore I feel productive about the time I spent on it." If I valued clipping my toenails as much as I valued meditation, spending twenty minutes clipping my toe nails might arguably have the same results as meditation.
[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-07-04 06:07 pm (UTC)

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Yeah, people keep using "dreaming while knowing you are dreaming" as a "definition" of lucid dreaming when clearly when they are actually use the term they are implying all sorts of other properties as well. I also have often had the former without any of the latter.
From: mporter
2012-07-04 06:33 am (UTC)

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I hypothesize that the specific character of Buddhism has its origin, as an attempt to escape suffering in a world where reincarnation occurs, so even death provides no release. That was the world of Hinduism into which the Buddha was born.

In fact, now that I think about it, perhaps you could say that Buddhism is to Hinduism as Satanism is to Christianity - it shares the ontology, but rejects the value system, in favor of something that would overthrow the whole order of being. The Christian says, God is supreme and that is good; the Satanist says, God is supreme, but I shall oppose him. Similarly, the Hindu says, there is an endless cycle, and where you end up is a just judgment on how you previously lived. The Buddhist says, there is an endless cycle, but one should want no part of it, because the heavens and the hells originate together; therefore seek the complete extinction of desire, which may or may not be correlated with cessation of personal existence.
[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2012-07-04 08:22 am (UTC)

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I am curious to know how one avoids getting magical powers.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-07-04 07:18 pm (UTC)

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I don't have the link, but if you start developing them you should try to dismiss them as unreal (not in the sense of magic being unreal, but in the sense that to Buddhists everything is sort of unreal), and meditate on how they are unsatisfactory and impermanent. If it gets really bad, you can eat heavy food, distract yourself, bring yourself to orgasm, and other things that ground you in the body or the material world.
[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-07-04 11:51 am (UTC)

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I distrust the idea of abandoning desire as it seems like a convenient religious tool of social control, much like the usual rewards in the afterlife.

I dropped meditation last year when someone on less wrong described the stages towards enlightenment involving a period of heavy depression - I have enough of that on my own without having to court it, thank you very much.

More recently someone there described meditation in terms of attentional training and I'm giving it another whirl in that spirit, I'm taking a leaf out of Bruce Lee's playbook and using a constant increase routine, +1 minute every day, which seems to be working as I'm currently up to 34 minutes where I'd prevously lose patience 6 minutes into my daily 15.

Can't say anything about the meditation itself, but I'm finding the daily increase routine applies to a lot of things and seems to work well (Exercise, drawing practice, learning programming). Although obviously I'm going to start running into time problems soon. With exercise it's simply a matter of lowering reps & increasing difficulty but I'm not sure where to go with meditation once I'm doing 1 hour +, maybe find a waterfall to sit under while I'm doing it... :)
[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-07-04 03:33 pm (UTC)

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Meditation does give you all kinds of interesting mental effects a lot before reaching enlightenment - I would know, only having meditated regularly for four months or so. I should blog about them more.

For instance, maybe a week ago I managed to put myself in a state, which lasted most of the day, where I could start feeling good by just closing my eyes. It felt like there were two vibrating "feel-good generators" under my eyes, which pulsated with a pleasant feeling - easily overwhelmed by other sensations if I was doing something else, but closing my eyes and focusing on the feeling made it a lot stronger.

I recognize how crazy that paragraph sounds, but it's true. The only unfortunate bit is that I haven't been able to get back to that state.

Also repeated meditation and trying to concentrate on the sensations in my face has made that area feel a lot more sensitive. As I type this, I can feel my face in a way that I never used to before. I'm not sure of what exactly it is that I'm sensing, whether it's slight muscle tension or just noise, but it's there.

See also this and this.

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha has nice concrete descriptions of the various Jhanas, as well as instructions on getting there. The author says that reaching Enlightenment took him about the same amount of effort as getting through medical school. I think Jasen Murray said something about managing it in six months.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-07-04 07:13 pm (UTC)

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"Meditation does give you all kinds of interesting mental effects a lot before reaching enlightenment - I would know, only having meditated regularly for four months or so. I should blog about them more."

You should. I think part of my problem is that there's a culture of not advertising meditation results in the same way people would advertise, say, success from the martial arts, so people like me never hear of these things.

"The author says that reaching Enlightenment took him about the same amount of effort as getting through medical school."

Oy vey. Is it too late to just go with the three uncountable eons?
[User Picture]From: purejuice
2012-07-04 09:26 pm (UTC)

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it's great for anger management, and for people addicted to crisis mentality -- reporters, like me, for one. it's also great for the cognitive therapy negativity spiral common to clinical depression and may help drug and alcohol addicts. qua cog therapy meditation is unsurpassable in the reward department.
[User Picture]From: sanba38
2012-07-05 08:28 am (UTC)

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When I lived in a small town in Taiwan, I had a friend called Ayien or Crazy Anita. She was a devout Buddhist who prayed at the temple with the orange roof in the morning, and at the temple with the brown roof and the nuns in the evening. She was a strict vegetarian, and avoided eating garlic and onion. She was also always involved in several odd money-making schemes, like selling slimming soap, and so forth.

One day, she said to me, "I am going to go visit the Buddhist master with natural power, and I am going to ask him, 'When do I get my money!'" She didn't really understand what I thought was so funny.

http://www.tricycle.com/ancestors/keep-sweeping-a-chan-life-rural-tennessee?page=0,1



Edited at 2012-07-05 08:29 am (UTC)