Ep. 13 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Buddhism and Parasitic Processing
(Sectioning and transcripts made by MeaningCrisis.co)
Welcome back to awakening for the meaning crisis. So last time what we did is we finished up a cognitive scientific exploration of higher states of consciousness, awakening experiences, these kinds of mystical experiences that bring about massive transformation. We saw how we can give a psychologically adequate description of these processes that explain both the experiencial profile that people are having and some of the features that they find there in. We were also able to talk about this at the level of machine learning and information processing and at the brain level. And what comes out of this is a picture of a state of consciousness that, in which we are getting a flow state that is improving our optimal grip on the world. Optimizing our performance for making sense of things and enhancing our overall capacity for learning and problem solving. And we saw that that in fact provides a very good justification for these states being the guidance for the transformation of life in that what they do is they give a brain state that is highly optimized, processing things in a way that gives us a tremendous sense of a plausible grip on the world and that is making use processing that is absolutely indispensable and foundational for us. It is... It has a kind of important priority in all of our processing.
And what I suggested from this is that, while it doesn't give us any good theories, in the sense of propositional claims about the metaphysical structure of reality, these states do justify the... their claim to give us guidance. So although they are not rational in the sense of providing good argument and evidence for beliefs, they are rational in the sense of wisdom in that they optimize some of our core processing for being in contact with reality in a way that is coupled optimally to our own processes of self transcendence. And the cultivation of wisdom.
Back to the Buddha and his awakening
So, The Buddha awakens! And that awakening gives him this state that is guiding him to a fundamental transformation in how he understands the world and how he understands not just intellectually, because that's what I've been contrasting here, but in a participatory fashion, in an existential fashion, himself in the world. We talked about how this is bringing about a "Sati" (a deep remembering) of the being mode, so that he is seeing through the frustrating futility of modal confusion. But there is more than [this] going on! This higher state of consciousness is not only helping him remember the being mode and helping him to transcend through systematic illusion and go through something deeply analogous to a developmental shift. We can also see it in terms... We can see what's going on in his claim to enlightenment and its relevance to the cultivation of wisdom and the enhancement of meaning, in terms of the pronouncements he made from this state.
Now, talking about this is very problematic because the attempts by the West to understand some of the central tenets of Buddhism have not had a very good history! I recommend to Stephen batchelor's book The Awakening of the West for how the West has systematically misunderstood. And Batchelor makes a current argument in a series of his books - I've got to meet Stephen at a conference and we had dinner together, I recommend all of his works very strongly and very highly to you - and so from his works and in discussion with him he argues that the West is still in the grip of a problematic way of trying to interpret Buddhism. So let's take a quick look at that and then we will return to what the central claims of Buddhism are and I want to show you why even that way of putting it is perhaps perhaps incorrect.
The Wests's problematic way of trying to interpret Buddhism
So Batchelor, in one of his books "Alone With Others" and he follows it up with "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and then later on this is followed up by even a more radical "After Buddhism" in which he's taking the position of somebody who's post religious (very germane to many of us). But he does argue, and along with others, that we face an interpretation crisis when we're trying to understand Buddhism. We have two approaches that people give us for how we should try and interpret Buddhism. Of course this will not be relevant just to Buddhism, but for any position that exists in a different culture or history that we're trying to understand, be [it] Buddhism or Stoicism or Neo-Platonism for example.
Subjectivity verses Objectivity
So he says we are confronted with two different positions. One is the claim that you can only interpret Buddhism from within a tradition, and we have seen good reason why you might argue that. That this is... The kind of stuff we're talking about here (wisdom and self-transcendence), this is not largely a matter of altering your belief. This is about going through transformation in your perspective and participatory knowing. It's about fundamentally altering the Agent: Arena relationship, your existential modes etc.. And so if you are not engaged within the transformative practice, then of course you do not understand what Buddhism is. It has to, in that sense, be understood from within, and this is a general property wisdom per say. Wisdom is something that must be understood from within. The problem with that of course is It's myopic. There are very many Buddhist traditions and they are [all] relative to certain times and places in particular historical contexts, and to claim that that particular interpretation, that particular sect or tradition, is the sole pathway to understanding or interpreting Buddhism is of course myopic. It's narrow minded and often parochial. It claims things as fundamental which are often very contingent.
So, what's the alternative? The alternative is well... What the alternative says is that the problem with this (an internal interpretation) is, this is very "Subjective"! I don't know if that's exactly the right word, but the idea here is... This is... The problem with seeing things from the inside is that tends to be very subjective and of course that means you're not understanding the phenomena as it is, but you're only seeing it through your own particular bias. So the alternative, outside any tradition and this is typified in the academic study of Buddhism, for example like within religious studies or something like that. And then the main argument here is - and this will often happen! It's not always the case, but if you meet people in religious studies and you'll say "are you studying Buddhism?", they'll say "Yes, yes I'm studying Buddhism!" and then you'll ask them "Well what practices do you engage in?", they'll say "Oh no, no! I don't engage in any practices! That would be a mistake! If I got too involved, too close to this material, I would lose my objectivity! I would lose my ability to critically reflect on it, critically compare it to other traditions, other approaches". So the idea here is, what we will have is an "Objective" account.
Now, although Stephen doesn't mention this in his book, Batchelor... This - Stephen Batchelor doesn't mention it in his book - this is very reminiscent of the problem that Socrates faced because what we have (subjectivity) here is Transformative Relevance, and here (objectivity) we have some attempt to get at the truth. And like the Socratic project, I would put it to you and this is what I think Batchelor is saying, is that Buddhism is about both of these. It's about trying to find transformatively relevant truths. But that means we have to transcend both of these ways of interpreting Buddhism. So he points out that we have to get beyond both of these in some fashion.
How do we do this? Well he points out that we need to do this in a way that is going to be relevant to issues of meaning in our life. So this interpretation crisis, where we have these two competing and diametrically opposed ways of trying to interpret and import Buddhism, is actually interacting with the meaning crisis in society because we're not doing this just in some empty cultural vacuum, we are precisely interested - as I've been suggesting throughout this series of lectures - we're doing this precisely because we're deeply involved with the project of trying to recover how we can cultivate wisdom and enhance meaning in our lives in a cultural-historical context that is not supportive, and is in fact often delaterious to, those existentially necessary endeavors.
Okay, so what do we do? We have to break out of all of this in some fashion. And what he does is he tries to see where these (within a traditin & outside any tradition) are both fixated. And what he argues is that this (within) will become myopic because it will get fixated on the particular propositions of a tradition. It will get fixated on beliefs and this is in fact what you study over here (outside) Objectively: you study of course the texts and the beliefs that have been propositionally rendered by a particular tradition. It's this belief fixation that needs to be broken through. This is why he entitles the book that came after "Alone With Others", "Buddhism Without Beliefs", because he tries to argue that part of what is preventing us from really getting both sides of Buddhism is that both of these are fixed, locked, like being locked inside the box in the 9-Dot Problem. I'm trying to understand Buddhism as a set of beliefs.
We have gotten so used to this way of thinking, and we'll see later why it is a post-Christian way of thinking, that these traditions for cult- these Axial Legacy traditions for cultivating wisdom and self-transcendence are to be understood as creeds - as systems of beliefs - that we now even will equate the word "belief" with these practices. We'll talk about it as a belief system. Or will you even use the word belief as a synonym for faith. Etc. So we have gotten so oriented towards this reduction of all of what we've been talking about here, all of this transformation process to the possession and the assertion of beliefs - and again we'll see historically why that's the case - that we can't break out of this.
Interestingly, although I won't be able to do it in this video, we're going to see that breaking out of trying to understand 'meaning' in terms of belief systems is also going to be needed to address the meaning crisis. I have been pointing you towards that repeatedly. Belief systems, namely ideologies, are attempts to create meaning. But they fail for the deep reason - and you've already seen a lot of argument and evidence for this - is that a lot of your 'meaning-making' machinery is not occurring at the level of your propositional knowledge, your beliefs and your assertions of which beliefs you adhere to.
The Four Noble Truths should be the Four Enobbling Truths or Provocations
So he proposes instead what we need to do is we need to look at Buddhism, ultimately, existentially. You remember 'existentially' has to do with these modes. He also invokes in, along with others, the distinction between the Being Mode and the Having Mode, and he proposes that Buddhism is remembering The Being Mode, and I've already talked about that in a previous video. And so he says "Look...! Traditionally what the Buddha said..." and now we're returning to what the Buddha said is, in order to try and get more of what his enlightenment was about... "...traditionally what the Buddha said is presented as the Four Noble Truths, and these are four statements or propositions that are usually presented to our ears as claims to be believed, and that what makes you a Buddhist is if you believe them.
The problem with this, of course, is that it is taking place at this very level (belief) that Batchelor argues we need to get beyond. It's not, of course, that people don't believe things within Buddhism! It's that what we've been talking about here - these processes of transformation - are taking place at the level of perspective (perspectiable) knowing, at the level of transforming of states of consciousness, and at a participatory level transforming the fundamental machinery of the self, of the Agent:Arena relationship, and the modes of existence. So we need to understand these four noble truths as things that could help afford the kind of transformations we've been talking about. The point about these is not to believe them. The point about them is to get them to help you re-enact the Buddha's Enlightenment. If you're not doing that, if you cannot 'enact enlightenment' then you are not 'getting' The Four Noble Truths.
He proposes therefore, that we should not call them The Four Noble Truths, we should call them The Four Ennobling Truths. I then proposed to him in person that we shouldn't even call them truths anymore because truths, "truth" is a property of propositions. Actually, I said what you should call them is The Four Ennobling Provocations. You're trying to provoke people into change.
So let me try and go through the four noble truths, but restating them in turn as four ennobling, enabling - that means affording self-transcendence - provocations. By doing that I think we can get back to - if that's the right verb - what the Buddha was conveying about what's going on in enlightenment. What kind of transformation is being brought about by the awakening experience? And what is it alleviating? OK, so let's go through these one by one. Okay, so I'll present the standard way (left of board) of representing the truth and then the reformulation (right of board) in order to deal with Batchelor's, I think astute, criticism and in order to interconnect with all the argumentation we have been developing throughout this video series.
All is suffering
So the first one is typically stated as: "All is suffering" or "all of life is suffering".
Now that's... First of all, if that were the statement to be believed, it's false! Because suffering is a comparative term. And comparative terms can't be extended to everything. That would be like saying everything is tall. It doesn't make any sense. Things are only tall relative to other things being being shorter. So first of all it doesn't really mean "all is", it's something more like "all is threatened by". Well what's the "all"? Does it mean everything in existence? Should we interpret it metaphysically? Well I mentioned last time that we should be careful about giving metaphysical interpretations to what people bring out of these awakening experiences. And the Buddha himself was famously reticent to give any metaphysical interpretations to his statement. So let's try and follow that.
In order to get at that, let's note what this word means (Suffering), because again we've tended to allow a word to go through a process of trivialization and reduction and we've lost part of the meaning. Let me give you, first of all, an analogy. OK, so the original meaning of this word is 'insane', but it has come to be synonymous with 'angry'. "I'm mad at Agnes", doesn't mean I'm 'insane', right? It means that I'm angry at Agnes. How did that happen? Well one of the ideas is anger is a state that can render you, if it becomes extreme, extreme anger can render you temporarily insane! And therefore temporarily mad. Anger is a cause, a pertinent cause of madness.
So, "Suffering": people usually hear "pain/ distress" when they hear the word suffering. That person is suffering. But that's not actually what the word means. To 'suffer' means to undergo. It means to lose Agency. So you can actually suffer Joy. You can have so much joy that you, sort of, have lost control of yourself! You can have so much pleasure, it is not oxymoronic to say "I'm suffering pleasure". It means I'm having so much pleasure that I've sort of lost control of the situation! Now, pain is a very powerful way of losing agency! Why? First of all it's highly disruptive and secondly pain is associated,, usually with damage and damage is a state in which we're often losing Agency. So don't hear just pain. The Buddha is not saying everything's painful. That's ridiculous. Because if everything was painful nothing would be painful. Even all of your experiences can be painful. [It] doesn't mean anything [in] particular. Because many of your experiences can't be painful in and of themselves. Because, again, this isn't an absolute kind of claim. Instead, pay attention to this connection (suffering <-> loss of agency) rather than this one (pain).
How we're actually threatened by Dukka - a potential loss of freedom - in cognitive processing terms.
Do you remember, last video gave a parable of this "suffering". It's the monkey that grabs the pitch and then tries to free itself and then the other hand gets stuck and both paws and head and then it gets killed. There is nothing in there of pain. Most of the Buddha's metaphors are not pain metaphors, they're entrapment metaphors: Being fettered, losing your freedom, losing your Agency. That's why the Buddha doesn't describe enlightenment in terms of relief. But he would famously say "just like wherever you dip into the ocean it has one taste: the taste of salt! No matter where you dip into my teaching, it has one taste: the taste of freedom". So, what he seems to be saying is that all of your life is threatened with the possibility of losing your freedom. So let's go from "all is suffering", to a "provocation": realize that all of your life is threatened with a loss of freedom, a loss of Agency. And there's a word for this kind of loss, that's often translated as suffering, which is "Dukkha". Dukkha, again, does not mean pain.
What does Dukkha mean? Well the etymology is: imagine you have a wheel, and it's off-center on its axis, so the axle is not properly going through the center of the wheel and as the wheel is turning it's destroying itself. There's a self destructiveness. Or you have, your arm is out of joint, it's disjointed like when Shakespeare says... Hamlet says that "time is out of joint". It's out of joint, and as you're moving your arm it's destroying itself. So it means like an empty gap that's sort of dirty, so that as things are moving within it they're destroying themsev[es]. So the idea of something that's engaged in a process of self-destruction, which of course is one of the powerful ways you can lose your Agency is through self-destructive processes, is what's going on here. So realize that all of your life is threatened, very really threatened, existentially threatened, by a capacity for self-destructive behavior. Self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior. So now you see what he's doing is situated very firmly within the Axial tradition.
So what what does he mean here? How can we try and understand this a little bit better? So, this is work based on some stuff I've published with Leo Ferraro** and then I'll talk about some additional and important new work by Marc Lewis**. I want to try and trace a kind of pattern in your cognitive processing that can very often occur and the core of the argument I want to make is the very processes that make you adaptively intelligent - and we've been talking about this from the beginning - also make you vulnerable to self deceptive self-destructive behavior.
The major negative feedback loop of "Parasitic Processing"
So let's say you encounter an event and you interpret the event as bad. OK... Now one of the adaptive machines you have is your brain immediately is trying to predict and anticipate other events like that. The point of you encountering something potentially even painful or distressing is not just to "URRGH", it's to make you sensitive in anticipating what's going to happen in the future. Your brain now tries to assess the probability of another event like this happening. Now, we'll get into this in more detail later, although we've talked a bit about it already with ideas about salience, is I can't take in all of the information available to me. If I was to try and calculate the actual probability of the event, I would have to track all the variables in my environment. That's astronomically vast. Even a supercomputer cannot possibly do this. The thing is, when we do probability problems in school, we are given all the variables by stipulation but the real world doesn't work that way. The real world has an indefinitely large set of variables interacting in an indefinitely large number of ways.
So what do we do? Well we use what are called heuristics. We use shortcuts that try and help us cut through and zero in on the relevant data, the relevant information. As we've said before, zeroing in on relevant information is crucial. So one of the things we do is we use the representativeness heuristic. You judge how probable an event is by how prototypical it is, how salient it is, how much it stands out in your mind. And that will often interact with another heuristic: the availability heuristic. This is you judge how probable an event is by how easy you can remember a similar event occurring, or how easily you can imagine another event occurring. So these are actually very adaptive for you.
Now the problem is you're in a bad state because you've just had something bad happen to you and that triggers a thing called "Encoding Specificity". When you're sad it's very difficult for you to remember events in which you're happy. It's very easy for you to remember events in which you're sad. That's because your memory doesn't just store the facts, it stores all that perspectable, participatory knowing. It also stores the state you are in. This leads to very sort of paradoxical things. If you lose your keys when you're drunk one of the things you should do, if you want to get your keys back, is get drunk again because chances are it will improve your memory. If you're studying for a test and you have a headache and you take some aspirin when you're actually doing the test take the aspirin because it will improve your performance. There [are] classic experiments on this. In one experiment, you have a bunch of people learning a set of words, in the same room: group A and group B. And then in the second part of the experiment group A does it in the same room, Group B does it in a different room. That's the only difference in them. Group A will remember a significant greater number of words than group B just because they're in the same room. OK now this is very adaptive. You may say "that's crazy!" No it's not because your brain is trying to always fit you to the environment! So it doesn't just store information, it stores how you were fitted to the environment or the context. It's very adaptive.
So now what's happening here? Well you're in a bad state so it's easy for you to remember bad things. That means it's easy for you to remember bad things and that means you judge the probability of bad things happening to be increasing. This bad thing just happen to you so it's very salient. That makes you judge that it's much more probable it's going to happen and these are reinforcing each other. Now all of this is interacting with what's called "The Confirmation Bias". We'll go over a lot more of this later when we talk about problem solving. What this is is an adaptive strategy you use where you tend to only look for information that supports your current belief. Because very often trying to find dis-confirmation takes too long and it's very difficult and complex. So we tend to look for what confirms.
So now the confirmation bias... Now as I'm going through my memory in my imagination, I will tend to look for things that confirm my forming judgment that this event is highly probable. Now all of this machinery can go awry. All of these heuristics will mislead you. It's because of this heuristic that people make mistakes when they take loved ones to the airport and things like that. Because we can imagine planes falling from the sky and when it does it's very representative for us. People describe it as a tragedy, it's in the news, and so we judge airplane crashes to be highly probable even though they're very low in probability. But then we turn and get into our automobile which is the North American death machine without paying any attention to it. So we misjudge probabilities because of these heuristics. We can't do without them! It's like when we talked about hyperbolic discounting. You can't do without them. They're adaptive. You need them.
Let's continue this. So these are all reinforcing each other, the confirmation bias... So now what do you do? You judge the probability to be great. OK? Now notice how most of this is happening automatically in a self organizing fashion. That's again, because, imagine if I had to do everything fully consciously? "OK, I'm going to pick up the cup. Now I need to start tensing my upper arm, my bicep, I need to start moving my..." If I have to move everything consciously, I couldn't pick up the cup! I need my cognition to be inherently self organizing. We've seen that throughout. The way in which your processes need to be happening simultaneously bottom up and top down. Like when you're doing reading and you're reading both the letters and the words. Your cognition needs to be self organizing. It needs to be largely automatic. These are adaptively indispensable for you. OK so you judge the probability as great. Well what effect does that judgment have on you? It's not emotionally neutral! OK that makes you anxious. When your brain starts to conclude that the probability of negative events is high, you get anxiety. What does anxiety do to you? Well you lose cognitive flexibility. Your framing on things becomes very narrow, very rigid, very limited. What does that do? Well that reduces your ability to solve problems. Your ability to solve problems goes down. OK what does that do for you? As that goes down you start to make lots of mistakes and fail! What does that do? Well of course that increases your anxiety and that reinforces that bad events are happening to you.
What does all that do? Well all of this starts to gather in your mind as "I'm doomed"! You get fatalistic. Well if you're living in a fatalistic world, you're going to start interpreting more and more events, even neutral events, as bad and the whole thing starts to feed on itself ("Event/s interpreted as bad/wrong" flowchart containing all of this is shown on the screen). The very things that make you so intelligently adaptive; the fact that your cognition zeroes in on relevant information, makes it salient; the fact that it's so complex [and] capable of complexifying itself and organizing itself. The fact that it is trying to fit you to the environment and process information in a way that's doable within the real world. All these things that make you so adaptive, simultaneously make you vulnerable to self-deceptive self-destructive behavior. That's what it means to say "all of your life is threatened". Realize that all of your life is threatened by Dukkha.
It's not that everything you're doing is painful or distressing. That is ridiculous. That is a meaningless claim. It's that every process you're engaging, every time you're exercising your intelligent Agency, you're making yourself vulnerable to self-deceptive self-destructive processing. We called this in, when we published, "Parasitic Processing". It's not just about bad events. This is just one example. We get into all kinds of these spirals. We'll put up on this on the video a recent schema for what depression looks like that was released by some M.I.T. researchers. [It's] very complex like this! We call this Parasitic Processing because it's like a parasite in that it takes up life within you, and it takes life away from you! It causes you to lose your agency. It causes you to suffer. And here's what's important. This capacity for your cognitive brain to be self organizing, heuristic using, complexify, to create complex systems and functions with emergent abilities, has a downside to it.
This is what... You know when you're in one of these spirals! You'll know it!! "Oh no! Here I go...! Oh no!!" Knowing it. What does it do for you? What does your belief do? It's like knowing you... knowing that I should go outside the square... "Think outside the box!!!!!" It doesn't do anything!! Why? This is a complex, self-organising, adaptive system! If you try and intervene here the rest of the system reorganizes itself around your attempted intervention. It can adapt and preserve itself as you tried to destroy it. Why? Because it's making use of the very machinery by which You adapt, and make use of the things that are trying to destroy You!! That's how it works! No matter where I am, This is a perennial threat. No matter what I am doing, This is always liable to happen.
Now what's interesting, like as I said my colleague and good friend Mark Lewis... We're talking about comparing this to other work that he's recently been doing. So some of you may know Mark Lewis. I highly recommend you take a look at his work. Mark has been deeply influential in my own thinking... ideas about dynamical processing, self-organizing systems development. He is one of the foremost important neuroscientists about addiction and how addiction works in the world. I strongly recommend reading his book "Memoirs of an Addicted Brain".
So Mark was himself - I'm not disclosing anything confidential because it's right in the book - Mark was himself an addict in his youth and then he overcame his addiction then and he went into neuroscience to try and figure out why... What is addiction? How does it work? Now that's important because addiction is primarily the loss of Agency. It's not, I mean, addiction is distressing and painful... But when we're talking about somebody being addicted, the way we finally diagnose them is by how dysfunctional they've become. How much they lose their agency. So you are a videogame addict if you are playing video games to the point where you can not pursue the goals you want to pursue in your life. You cannot establish and cultivate the relations you want to establish in your life. You cannot cultivate the kind of character or identity you aspire to. If the video gaming is robbing you of those Agentic processes then of course that is what we mean by addiction. Addiction is a loss of Agency.
Now, when you take a look at Marc's work, Marc challenges - Marc Lewis - he challenges...! I just saw him give a talk. I've been having lunch with him. But I also saw him have, just a really good talk at the Society for Psychology and Philosophy or Philosophy and Psychology - we'll get the order right! - just this past year and he was not the only person making this point, but he articulated it with his own particular explanation which is his.
What is the standard model of addiction?
So the point that many a people are making is [that] the standard model of addiction is incorrect. Fundamentally wrong! What's the standard model? The standard model is: we have a biophysical chemical dependency, and when the chemical is removed we get an overwhelming compulsion to have to seek out the chemical. And if we don't get the chemical then we suffer, similar to as if we were starving from a lack of food. And if we... and so that's what "addiction" is. Then the problem with this is it sounds 1very commonsensical, and the media likes it! It has the one unfortunate feature of being almost completely false! Because first of all you can get addicted to processes that have no biochemical basis, like gambling for example. Secondly, if the if the overwhelming compulsion model was correct you have a great deal of difficulty explaining some very, very pertinent facts. Most people spontaneously give up their addiction in their thirties. We of course get focused on the people who remain addicted and therefore we come to believe that addiction is an overwhelming compulsion. But if you actually track people, many people spontaneously stop being addicted.
Here's a great historical example: You have soldiers in Vietnam during the Vietnam War getting addicted to opioids. In Vietnam! "OH THE OPIOID CRISIS!!!" Not that it isn't a crisis, but we tend to think that certain chemicals are intrinsically addictive. So, they get addicted to heroin. When they return to the United States the vast majority of them spontaneously stoped using the drug. "But, but why? ...chemical! Not in the body! What's going on? Isn't there a biochemical lock and therefore a huge compulsion...?" Well think about it. Think about it in terms of existential learning. See when they were in Vietnam, they had a particular identity: they're a soldier (Agent). And they're in a particular Arena: war. They're in a particular existential mode. When they returned to the United States they become: a citizen (Agent) and a peaceful country (Arena). The relationship between the agent in the arena is what is fundamentally being altered in addiction.
Marc Lewis' model of Reciprocal Narrowing
So Marc proposes a model that he calls "Reciprocal Narrowing". So here's your Agent and here's the Arena (drawn on the board). And what happens is the drug use is associated with a particular Agent:Arena relationship. And what happens is - and we talked about this before. Remember, this is always co-identification; we're always assuming an identity and assigning identity in a code defining, interdependent manner. -What happens is, you start to lose a little bit of your cognitive flexibility, perhaps due to something like this (refers to previously mentioned negative feedback loop on the board). As you lose your cognitive flexibility, the number of options in the world starts to decline. As the number of options start to decline, you lose the variability for your Agency. As you get a tighter, narrower, less flexible cognitive Agency, the number of options in the world goes [down]. And what happens is these two things reciprocally narrow to where you have no options as to who you could be or how the world can be. And that's addiction. It is a learned - not propositionally learned - prospectiably, participatory learning of a loss of agency.
I pointed out to Marc that if this is the case there must be an opposite. If there is a spiral down there must be a spiral up. And in personal communication just recently he said yes! Yes totally! And you know what that spiraling up would be. What would be the Agent:Arena relationship in which the Agency and the world are expanding? That's anagoge! That's the move towards enlightenment. What I want you to understand is Dukkha is these two things (both models on the board) because they're inerpenetrating. This loss of agency... Because this... This is your agency... As you're simultaneously doing parasitic processing within, you're doing reciprocal narrowing without. Those are totally reinforcing each other. That's Dukkha! And no matter where you turn, this is always threatening.
You can't get free of that. You can't run away from it. You can't deny it. Remember the Buddha tried self-denial. This is like trying to hop over your shadow. You can't do it! Because it is endemic. All of this is endemic. This is the Agent:Arena relationship! You can't do away with this. This is indispensable to you being a person. This is self organizing, relevance realizing, complexifying processing! You can't get away from that because that is what makes you adaptive.
So what do you do? That's what The Buddha meant, when you realize that all of your life is threatened by Dukkha. He didn't mean believe that all of life is suffering.
So, what we need is... How do we address this? Well, once you realize it as a provocation... Once... I should like... The point is: you should feel threatened! You should feel threatened because if I can make you feel threatened by what I've just done here - how close and intimate this threat is to you - then you're starting to enact the process of moving towards enlightenment, rather than just asserting some propositions that are largely inert.
So, what is the standard way [of] presenting the second truth? "Suffering is caused by desire". And that gets you into all kinds of problems because then, well: "But don't I desire enlightenment?" "But then you should not desire to do anything...!" You can just get into all these weird loops, right?! A better way of thinking about it is: realize that Dukkha can be understood. Realize that Dukkha is caused by the way in which you can become attached, which doesn't mean that you just really like something. It means this sense of a narrowing of yourself and the world so that Agency and options are lost. The way the addict is attached to their drug, which is not a compulsive desire, although they will experience it that way... It is better understood as a Parasitic Processing that has led to a Reciprocal Narrowing, so that no alternatives are available to you.
The third: The traditional presentation is: "The Cessation of Suffering is Attainable."
But realize, a better way of putting that is: realize that you can recover your Agency. Because this narrowing down can also - you can use the same machinery to anagogicley ascend out of the cave towards the sun of enlightenment. Realize that this machinery, this complex machinery, this dynamical system, can be exapted in a way that reduces your capacity for self-deception.
Why? How? How do I address this? By a psycho-technology. The Buddha offered a psycho technology of practices. You know how you deal with a complex dynamical system that is operating against you? By cultivating a counter-active dynamical system that is operating for you. You cultivate a dynamical system that doesn't intervene just here or here (in your complex cognitive machinary), one at a time, like your efforts. "I'll try this, oh that doesn't work! I'll try this..." ...because every time I intervene, it just reconfigures and I'm doing the same damn thing again! Here I am in this fourth relationship doing the same damn thing again, and I know I'm doing it! And yet when I try and not do it... I find myself doing it!! That will not work. That's why people end up in therapy!
But what if I could create a dynamical system that could interact/ intervene here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here... (in the machinery) simultaneously and in a coordinated fashion? What if I created a counteractive, dynamical system? And let it operate... And it didn't operate just at the level of my beliefs, but operated at the level of my state of consciousness and my traits of character?
The Eightfold Path
That's what the Buddha offered. He offered "The Eightfold Path". The Eightfold Path is a counteractive dynamical system that counteracts parasitic processing and does reciprocal opening, beyond the ego self and beyond the everyday world where it's represented by an eight spoked wheel. It's supposed to be a self-organising system that rolls itself in which each part is interdependent on all the other parts. You might have heard it. The Eightfold Path is to cultivate: Right Understanding, Right Thinking (there's various translations of this, sometimes Right Aspiration/ Right Thought), Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood and then Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. We already talked about this: saying there's Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration means there is incorrect...
One thing: This "Right" is not Moral Righteousness. This is right like right handedness. It means getting an optimal grip, because that's what my right hand is an expert in doing. It means getting an optimal grip. Notice this (Right Understanding and Right Thinking) is about your cognition. This (Right Speech, Action and Livelihood) is about your character, and this (Right Mindfulness and Concentration) is about your consciousness. And it deals with ethical aspects, existential aspects, sapiential aspects. It is the attempt to give you a counter-active dynamical system that can deal with Parasitic Processing and that can help you reverse the Reciprocal Narrowing until you get anagogic awakening. It takes you beyond the prison of the ego and the Everyday World.
So we see what's happening here? What I'm trying to show you is [that] this higher state of consciousness, this awakening, is set into a context of helping you do important transformations. It helps you to remember The Being Mode, to get out of Modal Confusion. It helps you counteract Parasitical Processing and Reciprocal Narrowing. It helps thereby to open you up to self-transcendence in a reliable and powerful way. This is what The Buddha was offering people. And I've tried to explain it to you in a way such that both you should feel threatened by what he is trying to provoke in you, and you should be encouraged. Both of these are enactment statements. You should be able to enact the threat and enact the courage: "en-couragement"; enacting the courage, [such] that you can respond to the parasitic processing and the reciprocal narrowing in your own life, to the modal confusion in your own life. Part of what we need to understand is how we can properly integrate this into what we have been learning about: Wisdom and Meaning, in the Mediterranean cultural historical context. And, how all of that can be integrated within a current scientific worldview.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.
Episode 13 notes
To keep this site running, we are an Amazon Associate where we earn from qualifying purchases
Author - Stephen Batchelor
Book - The Awakening of the West - Buy here
Book - Alone With Others - Buy here
Book - Buddhism Without Beliefs - Buy here
Book - After Buddhism - Buy here
Dukkha, (Pāli: “sorrow,” “suffering”), Sanskrit Duhkha, in Buddhist thought, the true nature of all existence. Much Buddhist doctrine is based on the fact of suffering; its reality, cause, and means of suppression formed the subject of the Buddha's first sermon (see Four Noble Truths).
Marc David Lewis is a developmental neuroscientist known for dynamic systems approaches to understanding the development of emotions and personality. He is currently a professor at the Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
A heuristic technique, or a heuristic (/hjʊəˈrɪstɪk/; Ancient Greek: εὑρίσκω, heurískō, 'I find, discover'), is any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, or rational, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation. Encoding SpecificityEncoding specificity is a principle that states that human memories are more easily retrieved if external conditions (emotional cues) at the time of retrieval are similar to those in existence at the time the memory was stored.
The Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values.
Author - Marc Lewis
Book - Memoirs of an Addicted Brain - Buy here
Noble Eightfold Path
'The Noble Eightfold Path (Pali: ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga; Sanskrit: āryāṣṭāṅgamārga) is an early summary of the path of Buddhist practices leading to liberation from samsara, the painful cycle of rebirth.
Other helpful resources about this episode:
Notes on Bevry
Summary and Transcript on awakeningfromthemeaningcrisis.com