Welcome back to awakening from the meaning crisis. So last time we took a look at the second half of Aristotle and his further developments of the Axial-ages understanding meaning and wisdom. We took a look more at what you might call the world side of things. And we took a look at Aristotle's world-view; the two components. His "conformity theory" which is important alternative understanding of knowledge, it's a contact epistemology, an intimate knowing and being with something and how plausible that contact epistemology actually is. And then we also looked at a plausible - it turned out to be false! - but a plausible model of the world that is very consonant and consistent with that conformity theory.
This is a geo-centric world that is moved by natural motion, it's a cosmos. And then we used that to discuss how the theory of the world and the theory of how we know the world and 'be' within the world are intimately connected and mutually supporting, and you get world view attunement, and how that creates existential modes in which we are co-identifying the agent and the arena and creating the meta-meaning, the relationship that makes all individual acts and events and situations and places meaningful for us and how important that consonance is between our existential mode and our intellectual understanding and why Aristotle is so prominent because of his capacity to create a worldview that lasts for a millennium and being so well attuned a world view.
We then paused from our discussion of the Axial Age in Greece and we moved to the Axial age in India for the explicit purpose of trying to discuss the impact of the mindfulness revolution and the part of the thesis of the series is 'the mindfulness revolution is a response to the meaning crisis in the West and the growing confluence between Buddhism and cognitive science is an attempt to address and provide solutions to the meaning crisis in the West'.
We started by looking at the figure who epitomizes the Axial revolution within ancient India, and that's Siddhartha Gautama. And we began by looking at his myth, his mythological biography, if you want to put it that way and I remind you again how I am using the word myth. And we began by taking a look at his early life within the palace. We stepped aside and examined the palace as a mythological representation of a particular existential mode. We talked about two different existential modes following the work of Fromm, there's also a convergent of work for Buber and other important thinkers. Stephen Batchelor is going to make use of this distinction etc..
Fromm talks about two modes - two existential modes. The "having" mode that's organized around meeting or having needs in which we perceive the world categorically. We want to manipulate it and solve our problems and control it. And the "Being" mode which is organized around our being needs. These are needs that are met by becoming something, mature,, virtuous love. And we then talked about the possibilities of modal confusion: being locked in the having mode and trying to meet your being needs within the having mode. So trying to meet you need for maturity by having a car or meeting your need for being in love by having lots of sex. And we talked about the fact that you can become enmeshed in modal confusion and how that becomes a vicious cycle because as you're being these are frustrated you pursue ever more the mis-framed projects that the modal confusion is giving you. You try more and more to have things as opposed to more and more become what you need to become.
And then I suggested to you that being in the palace is a mythological representation of this kind of modal confusion in which we are stuck in the having mode and of course this also had one important cultural point - and I did say at the beginning that we would talk about it, we would develop a way of talking about the connections between the meaning crisis and other crises we are facing - so issues about a market economy and a commodification of everything and everyone. By inducing modal confusion it is possible to sell you more and as your identity becomes more and more a political and economic thing and commodity, that should be categorically understood and manipulated, the more and more I can sell you things and sell you ideas and manipulate you accordingly. So this has important ramifications for us now. That's why it's a myth. Because it has important ramifications for us right now.
But as I mentioned, Siddhartha does not stay in the palace. His curiosity becomes too great, and there are all kinds of variations on this story! And I don't think there is an absolute canonical way of saying it but he decides to leave the palace. He Goes out in his chariot with his Charioteer Chandra and they are traveling around and he sees a sick person and he is distressed. "What's wrong with that person?" He's... and Chandra says "my Lord! He's he's he's sick!" And Siddhartha said "What did he do to cause that?" And it's.. "Nothing!! It's just, it happens to everybody! Everybody gets sick at some point! It's just part of the way of things!". You can see this is the axial awakening. Remember the actual revolution is awakening about what's actually going on in the suffering in the world. And so Siddhartha is very distressed. [He says] "what? But, I could get sick too?" and Chandra said "Well of course! Of course.".
Part of the conceit of the myth is that Chandra is oblivious to Siddhartha's whole history which is of course unbelievable! But that's the point of a myth... To get you to realize things, not to convince you about historical truths. So, Siddhartha is distressed and he says "take me away from this, I don't want I don't want to see this anymore!". And so they drive. They drive along and they meet an old person. And Siddhartha says "stop, stop! Is this person sick as well?" "No my lord he's not sick. He's old!". "Old? What do you mean?", "Well this happens to everyone through the passage of time!", "You mean he didn't do anything in particulat...?", "No! It wasn't any... It's not his fault! He just is... He's become old!". And now Siddhartha says "No! OK, let's go back to the palace, this is really bad!". So they're making their way back to the palace. He's trying to return to that right that self enclosure of the pure having mode. But that's the thing about confusion - once it starts to be dissipated you can't return to it! So he's trying to return and of course, he meets a funeral procession! There's a corpse. And Siddhartha said "is that person sick? Or are they old?". "No! That person's dead. They're dead! They're not alive anymore." "What? But why is that?", "Well my Lord it happens to everybody!"
Now, do you see what's happened here. The having mode has been completely undermined. It's been completely undermined. And since Siddhartha is experiencing an existential crisis because this is happening at the level of his existential mode. That's what it means when we talk about an existential crisis. So he says "Get me back to the palace absolutely now!!" And so now there's a mad dash. And as he's trying to get back to the palace and trying to enfold himself back into that world he meets one more thing - one more person actually. He meets a mendicant, he meets one of these people that has given up the having mode. They were called "renouncers" because they have renounced the world of the palace, of luxury. And there's a deep peace in this man's eyes. And the contrast - and think about how, again, this is not just a matter of belief. This is a matter... This is happening in his entire being; his entire being is resonating with this distress because it's the whole way in which he is coupled to the world that has been suddenly thrown into confusion. There's all of this happening, this deep dist[urbance], and the contrast with the peace that he sees in the man's eyes.... And he turns to Chandra and says "Who is this?" and Chandra said "it's a mendicant! It's a wandering person." And [what] that person of course represents is the introduction, not the intellectual introduction, but the direct confrontation with the being mode. This is a person who has realized peace. And Siddhartha feels that contrast poignantly, powerfully. Painfully. So he returns to the palace with these four signs burning in him. The illness, the old age. The death. But also this representative of the being mode. Somebody who has cultivated wisdom and peace. Found some kind of deep connectedness that is untouched by the vicissitudes of our mortality.
But of course Siddhartha cannot find the peace he wants; he cannot get back to the palace. Think about the double senses of this word because it's really pertinent here. "Disillusionment". When we describe somebody as disillusioned, we're usually talking about a state in which they are perhaps moving towards despair. They're sad, they've experienced loss. It's a negative state. But notice at the heart of it is the loss of illusion. This is an axial age thing. He is "losing the illusion" of modal confusion and he's losing that sense of belonging that he had when he was in the palace. He doesn't belong there anymore.
He tries. He tries to make it work. We're going to talk about this later - we're gonna talk about this. Why is it after people have these kinds of awakening experiences, they feel that they need to transform their whole lives? That they can't go back? That there's something irreversible about it? This is something we're going to directly talk about. In fact we can we get a cognitive scientific purchase on that. But he can't go back. The disillusionment is too real. So he decides to leave and this is not an easy choice! He has a wife, he has a child and we may have, in fact, even ethically criticized him! ...he's abandoning his son, he's abandoning his wife. But there's a sense here that, and of course we should make moral reflection, we should make moral arguments, but, what the myth is saying is 'the moral life sits upon something deeper'! That carrying out your moral responsibilities while important, of course, can ultimately be rendered meaningless if you've lost meaning. Morality sits on, depends upon, your life being meaningful. And we're going to talk about this a lot later when we talk about the work of Susan Wolf and others. That meaning in life and the psychological work about this right now. Meaning in life is different from, and I would argue that this myth says is deeper than, simply leading a moral existence. See, there's something more to wisdom than just morality. See virtue iss also about that meaningfulness, that meta-meaning. It's ultimately about being plugged into the cultivation of wisdom. Not just doing what is morally correct.
So Siddhārtha leaves the palace. He cuts his hair, leaves the palace, goes into the forest and he decides to follow the path of the renouncers and try to cultivate a solution to the fear and the turmoil that is still reverberating within him. So he pursues various... he meets up with various teachers and he pursues various things. But he gets into... he gets into another troubled spot because although he leaves the palace there's an important sense in which he hasn't left the having mood because he's still he's still carrying that confusion because what he's pursuing, is he's pursuing asceticism. He's trying to subject the body to tremendous trial and pain. Trying to bring it into complete submission. So he's practicing self-denial. You can see why this would make sense, right? The palace was all about self-indulgence, so surely the solution is self-denial! That seems reasonable! Think about how often WE do these swings between self-ndulgence and self-denial.
So he starves himself to the point where you can see his spine from the front of his body because his belly is so withdrawn and gaunt it's pressing against the vertebrae of his back! He looks like some anaemic Specter in representations we have of him from that period. But it's not working! It's not working, because do you see what's still going wrong? Do you see it? Trying to annihilate the self is still thinking about having a self. He's still in the having mode; he's just transferred it from having bodily things to trying to have his self. Yes, he's trying to throw it away but he's still framing it in the having mode. He's still understanding the problem in the having mood. He's still modaly confused. Self-denial is as much an aspect of this confusion as self-indulgence because it's merely the negation of self-indulgence. It is not it's transcendence. When you negate something you are still framing it in the same way. So he's sitting on the banks of a river and he's fatiguing. And he hears a barge going down the river and there's a musician playing and the musician has his apprentice. And it's a lyre, or a stringed instrument of some kind. And he's saying to the apprentice "No no no no listen! Listen to me! Strings can't be too tight and they can't be too loose! Too tight is just as bad as too loose..." (And think about Aristotle. Think about Aristotle and the Golden Mean which doesn't mean just the middle point in some sort of average! And I say that because of how this has come to be understood.).
This is when Siddhārtha discovers the middle path. It doesn't mean mean some compromising middling solution. It means a radical reformation. The middle path is to transcend the having mode by rejecting both self-indulgence and its negation self-denial. We're going to talk about this a lot more when we talk about optimization strategies. We talked about it, remember, when we talked about Flow. You're not trying to maximize, you're trying to optimize. You're trying to get the right connectedness. And see, that's what the being mode is all about. It's about being connected in the right way.
So Siddhartha has this realization. In the story the realization com[s when] he tumbles into the river and he's drowning and a little girl saves him which is, in the culture of the time, that is extremely demeaning for a man who was once a prince to be saved by a little girl. It points to the radicalness of the change that's occurring for him. She gives him the equivalent of rice pudding (that's why on Bhodi-day Buddhists will often eat rice pudding to celebrate that fact.) So he realizes he must pursue the middle path. He must find a way of optimizing his cognition that allows him to transcend and rediscover this missing mode; the mode that he saw in the eyes of the mendicant. Now this is important, because this is the word for that kind of remembering: "Sati". It means to remember, to remind, not just like a fact. It means "to bring it to mind". So this is a modal memory. This is remembering a lost mode of being. This is not remembering a fact or event. This is remembering what it is like to be in the being mode. It is to recover a mode. It is a deep kind of restructuring of your being. It doesn't mean just simply remembering or reminding yourself.
It's like when you go back to a place that you haven't been for a while and you start to recover and remember an identity you used to have there. While you were away from the place you remember the facts and the event. But when you go there... "Ahh! Right! This is what it was like to be me at this time!" It's that kind of remembering. It's a modal memory. It has to do with that participatory knowing we were talking about. Siddhārtha is trying to remember (writes sati on the board) the being mode. It's in the eyes of the renouncer. Now why do I bring this word up and go on about this? Because this is the word that is translated today by this term: "Mindfulness". But I bet you when I say mindfulness, especially if you're in touch with this revolution that is sweeping our culture, you probably didn't think of remembering the being mode! Now there are some astute authors who describe it that way. Stephen Batchelor did in a beautiful little book called "Alone With Others" that I heartily recommend.
Siddhārtha is going to pick up on these psycho-technologies of mindfulness that he's learned fom his teachers, but he found inadequate because he's going to transform them because he precisely wants to remember (indicates sati on the board), he wants to 'recover', it's a better word I would think, the being mode. Not as an intellectual idea, but as his very Agency and the very way in which the world is realised in conjunction and co-identification with that agency.
So, I want to stop now, this story. We're going to pick it up and how/ what Siddhartha does in order to bring about this recovery. But I'm going to give you one way of thinking about it that we're going to build towards. Another way in which you remember, in this sense of "sati" is when you wake up. Remember we talked about this as one of the metaphors, the myths that people use for talking about self-transcendence. There's enlightenment, there's waking up, there's going from being a child to an adult. We'll come back to these again and again.
But why... When I wake up, this is not like when I just remembered an event, like right now and I remember "oh yes, I know it's out in the hall..." When I wake up I recover my world and my identity. I deeply remember... and even look at what this word means. (Writes remember; "Re-Member" on the board.) To belong to. To be a member. I belong again to myself and to the world. That's what happens when I'm waking up. And Siddhārtha wants a mindfulness psycho-technology - in fact not just a psycho-technology, [but] a set of psycho-technologies - that are going to help him 'remember', 'recover' sati: The Being mode. He is going to awaken. And that's, in fact, what his title means. Buddha is not a name. Buddha is a title. It means the awakened one. But we need to talk about the cognitive science of mindfulness because we are here looking at Siddhārtha precisely because of the mindfulness revolution that's happening here and now today. And the mindfulness revolution is a response to the meaning crisis and we can see why it is! Even better if we re-situate it within Siddhārtha's myth because we see that he's cultivating mindfulness to cultivate awakening, because awakening is a way of responding to the meaning crisis. Hence the title of this series: "Awakening from the Meaning Crisis".
But, as a cognitive scientist I'm critical, [I'm] both appreciative of all of the scientific work that's being done on mindfulness, but I'm also critical of it. As a good scientist should be. So I want to talk a little bit about how we can understand and better formulate what mindfulness means. And this is based on work that I published in 2016 with Leo Ferrara on mindfulness. So again, why am I doing this? If we want to awaken from the meaning crisis, if we want to understand what Siddhārtha's awakening was, we've got to understand what mindfulness meant to him. And what it meant to him is precisely the set of psycho-technologies that brings about awakening. And part of what I want to show is 'how can we get back to an understanding of mindfulness and it's constitutive psycho-technologies that will afford precisely that'.
How can we get a deeper understanding of the cognitive processes at work in mindfulness and how they can afford such important existential transformation? So if you ask people who are pursuing mindfulness practices (meditation, contemplation practices. I'll try and argue later why those shouldn't be treated as synonyms, for example, even though they often are), they'll give you a sort of standard understanding of what mindfulness is and what I want you to first note is how much it is not picking up on what we've already said about sati. So people will tell you that to be mindful, what you're trying to do is pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental fashion. Trying to learn how to... Notice: there's a hint! There's this hint of the being mode, remembering the being mode, it's still there! Because they'll say it's about "being present", they're invoking the being mode. But they're doing it in a way that, while helpful, is maybe misleading. Now, I want to make sure that you're understanding what I'm criticizing, what I'm not criticizing. In order to do that, let me tell you a little bit more....
I both studied mindfulness scientifically and do work on it; experiments and publish theoretical work on it. I also teach. I teach it as I mentioned. I teach meditative practices. I teach contemplative practices and I teach extracurricular Tai Chi Chuan, which is a form of moving mindfulness. So I am familiar with both the academic attempt to explain mindfulness and the pedagogical attempt to teach it. And I think it's important to have a foot in both of those worlds to realize a way in which you can become confused in your attempts to understand mindfulness.
We need to avoid confusion by making a distinction. We avoid Modal confusion by recovering the distinction between the having mode and the being mode. We can get deeply confused about mindfulness if we do not remember the distinction between the language of training and the language of explaining. This (training languaur) is the language I use when I'm teaching people meditation and contemplation and Taichi. I use language that helps them acquire the skills. And this is language of imitation and involvement and I can depend on our presence together. I can depend on the pragmatics of the situation. I can depend on the fact that their goal is that they want to acquire the skill. And so I'll use language there that's appropriate for that. But if I were simply to use that language unquestioningly here (explaining language), I would make a mistake. Let me give you an example and I'm going to use an example from memory because of the connections I'm making between mindfulness and memory. One of the most powerful ways you can train your memory is to use what's known as the method of location, or the method of loci, if you want to sound more pretentious! So some of you might have watched the Sherlock series. Sherlock does this with his mind palace.
So what you do is you memorize a space. You memorize the rooms so you can visualize them in your mind. And then if I want to remember a bunch of things, lets say I want to remember stuff associate with Socrates, that I have a figure of Socrates here (illustrating this on the board) and then I put a bunch of other images there in that location... and now I want to remember some stuff about Plato and I have some other things here some other images and I put a bunch of images... started with Plato, and so forth... And then what I do, in order to remember what I need to remember, I call this (mind palace "schematic" drawn on the board) up, I go into this room and I have all the images and they're all tightly associated together and I get all the information I need from Socrates and then I go, and then I move in my mind palace to where the Plato room is and I unfold it... And this is powerful.
The orators of the ancient world could use the method of location in order to memorize speeches that would last up to six hours! And we know that this is a very powerful mnemonic. You should, if you're a student/ you're studying, learn how to use this. It's not just how to become a sociopathic superhero detective. It is a good way to become a student. The method of locations. Now notice this. It is powerful language of training. It trains your memory well. Now, what you may do, and this would be a mistake, is you may think "this is how memory is organized". This is called "the spatial metaphor of memory". You may think "oh well this is how memory is organized. All that all my memories for one thing are sort of stable things, like my image of Socrates, are in a stable location, and all the things that are associated in my memory are actually closer together in my memory. So the way memory works is I send in a little homunculus, a little memory guy, and he searches through the rooms until he finds the right room and then he goes in the room and everything's organized there and he finds what he needs. And then he brings it out. And then he passes it up to consciousness. 'AhhAHHHH...' and that's how I remember. Right?" And we talk about searching through our memory and retrieving from our memory. Here's the thing, and Eysenck and Keane pointed out this a long time ago, this spatial metaphor for memory is almost completely wrong. Your memory does not work this way.
It doesn't work this way. That's a mistake. Here, I'll show you. So tell me quickly other colors associate with blue... You'll say "Red, Green..." Tell me other words that rhyme with blue... "Shoe, new...". OK, so red is close to blue and shoe is close to blue, yes? That means what else is close? Shoe and red! So when I say shoe you should think of Red! Do you? Of course you don't! Here's another way in which your memory isn't laid out this way. You rapidly know when you don't know something. What's Meryl Streep's phone number? "I don't know!". Have you ever been in Bangkok. "No." What did "Bob" do? Did he get on some sort of hyperspace motorcycle inside your, like....? What did he...? Did he go to every place you've ever been? Is that Bangkok? Is that Bangkok? Is that Bangkok? No! He instantly knows! YOU instantly know that you weren't in Bangkok. He instantly knows that you don't have Meryl Streep's phone number. He doesn't search all the space. In fact it looks like he doesn't search it at all!
Memory is a lot more mysterious and it does not operate in the simplistic manner that the spatial metaphor says. That spatial metaphor is great for training your memory. It is great for training your memory but it is overly simplistic and gets you to mis-understand - listen to my language - how memory actually works. The language by which we train mindfulness should not be imported (*onscreen correction) UNcritically into our scientific attempts to explain it and understand it. Paying attention to the present moment. First of all you have to know what it is to pay attention. I'm going to show you that that's way more problematic than you think [it is], because you're probably thinking it's operating according to another metaphor: shining a spotlight; I pay attention the way I shine a spotlight. What's the present moment? I mean when I'm 'training' you, Yeah! we can sort of just make it happen because we can rely on the content. But what's the present moment? Is it right here right now? That nanosecond? This second? The last five minutes? The last hour? What's the present moment? See, the word "present" doesn't have a particular meaning. It's called an "indexical". It's relative to what I'm cons[sidering]. What's here? What's now? You see, then people think "oh well, I can tell you what the present moment is! It's paying attention to the here and now!" ...that's useless! What's "here"? This spot I'm standing on? This room? This city of Toronto? This solar system? This universe out of all of the universes in the multiverse? What's "now"?
See, you're not explaining anything! That language helps train people. But it's overly simplistic and misleading when we're trying to understand. What we need to do is re-formulate mindfulness and we need to do it in order to recover what Siddhārtha was talking about. How can we understand mindfulness such that it can tell us how people can become awakened? That's what we need. That's how we have to re-formulate mindfulness.
So let's try and do that. And let's make use of some of the things we've already built upon here. We can bring in Plato to help us. And what a great ally that is to have. Because, do you remember what Plato pointed out? That our knowledge is not captured just by a list of features. Remember the bird isn't just the wings, the feathers, the beak, it's also the structural functional organization. The thing is, if you look at most people's definition of mindfulness, even in scientific articles, all they give you is a feature list. "(1)To be mindful is being present", which we've got to do something about because that's just language of training, it's not explanatory language. "(2)Not judging"...and [-] that's going to be a problem! "What do you mean not judging? I'm supposed to pay attention to my breath and not pay attention to my distractions! THAT'S a kind of judging! What do you mean not judging?" Well.......... Right!!!! What does it mean? It's somehow supposed to bring about something like "(3)insight", and that's going to be important because insight, I'm going to argue, is on a continuum with awakening. I'll tell you... I'll explain what that means. And it's supposed to "(4)Reduce your reactivity". You're supposed to become more equanimous. More balanced.
So, (going through the list again) mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. Being present, paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental fashion that's supposed to bring about insight. The form of meditation I teach, the Buddhist form, it's claimed it goes back to Siddhārtha, it's called Vipassana. Vipassana means Insight - obviously not just an intellectual insight, but an existential insight. It's supposed to reduce reactivity, what does that mean? Now that's a feature list! We're missing the idos. We're missing the structural functional organization that tells me how all of those things actually go together.
So this is what we need to do. We need to turn this feature list into a feature schema. We need to recover its missing structural functional organization and we need to re-interpret all of these things so we can actually explain their functionality. And we need to do that by tying them to independently constructed theory or theoretical claims within psychology. Look, we have people who are doing the psychology and the cognitive science of attention, of insight, of improved self-regulation. Let's pay attention - no pun intended! - to what they're telling us about how insight, attention, self-control operate. So, one of the things you do to turn a feature list into a feature schemas is you make some distinctions between the types of features.
So here's these core four that we keep seeing a lot: being present; I'm not judging or non-judging; insight; reduced reactivity. I've split them up like this (on the board) because there's a distinction here. These are states that I can get into. These are things I can do... So being present is something I can do. I can start it. I can stop it. We've got to come back to what it means. But we know it's an activity you're engaging in because it's constantly being disrupted while you're meditating and you're constantly having to engage in it again. And it's the same thing with not judging. Not judging is something you're doing. It's a weird kind of paradoxical 'not doing', but again you can start it. It can stop. You can restart it again.
But these, these are not things you're doing. These are results. So to use the language of psychology these are states (being present and not judging) you can get into but these are traits (insight and reduced reactivity) that you cultivate. You want to become more insightful. You want to become less reactive. So immediately we understand "oh wait. So these are things I do (being present and not judging), and these are traits (insight and being less reactive) that I'm supposed to be realize[ing] when I'm cultivating mindfulness!". Now questions immediately emerge! By making this distinction, I can ask this question: "How does being present cause insight?". Or "how does being present reduce reactivity? Why do...? How...? Does non-judging cause insight? Does not judging cause reduced reactivity? What's the causal relation?".
Notice that the feature list doesn't talk about this at all. It doesn't talk about how the features are causally related. It doesn't talk about how the states can cause the traits. But it also doesn't ask constitutive questions. Constituitive questions are "part-whole" relationships. What's, what's this (states relationship)? Is this a part of this? Is this a part of this? Are they both part of some whole? What's that? What's the structural relationship here? What about these (traits relationship)? Is this part of this? Is this part of this? Are they both part of some whole? See, the feature list does not have the idos, and by not having the idos, or not looking for the idos, it's not asking any of these questions. These causal and constitutive questions.
Now as we start to answer these questions and as we start to answer them with the language of explaining rather than the language of [training? uncorrected error], we will turn a feature list into a feature schema. We will start to get at the structural functional organization of mindfulness and we'll start to get a deeper understanding of it. And that will help us to see how it is that mindfulness can bring about the kind of radical transformations that were promised by Siddhārtha's realization.
So I'm going to focus on this one right now (Being Present -> Insight). And again, we'll start by talking about specific insights, but obviously we're not talking about, 'this insight' or 'that insigh't. We're talking about a fundamental existential, modal kind of transformation. I've already said this language ("Being Present") is useless. People say "OK well what I meant was something like 'concentration'". That can't be right! That's not good enough because if you take a look at Siddhārtha's attempt to explain it, he talks about 'right concentration'. That's why I have concentration here (points out a tattoo on his arm). If Siddhārtha is telling you that there's 'right concentration', what does that strongly mean? That there is 'wrong concentration'! Mindfulness isn't about concentration. It's about getting the right kind of concentration. What does that mean? Well all it means [IS] paying attention! OK... Again, You're using a particular model for attention. Let's talk about these two things (concentration and paying attention) a little bit and let's talk about [-] Siddhārtha [-] when he's hearing "not too tight, not too loose" for the strings.
First of all, let's work our way up phenomenologically... I want you to compare two ways of concentrating. (This is based on work done by Ellen Langer who wrote probably the first book on mindfulness in the West called "Mindfulness" in 1988, way before the mindfulness revolution took off. And there's a lot of questions about what's the relationship between her account of mindfulness and the Buddhists'... I'm not getting into that right now because that's not what I'm trying to establish. I'm just using her way of trying to get you to understand concentration.) OK, so we're going to do it right here right now. So I want you to concentrate on my finger. Concentrate on it. Concentrate. Concentrate. Concentrate on my finger... Concentrate! Don't let your mind wander. Concentrate. OK. So most of you found that unpleasant because - notice what the metaphor even says is what I'm doing - I'm concentrating, I'm making my mind into a tunnel and then I'm sort of taking it on something and trying to keep it there and not let it move. And the only training you were given was what I was doing: Yelling! Concentrate! Concentrate!
OK. Let's do something else. OK. Ready? I want you to look at my finger. I want you to notice that it's not actually perfectly straight it's bent a little bit and it's a little bit thicker at the bottom than at the top. And there are sort of multiple sections to it and it's a little bit red on ones[ide]... It's very different wasn't it? She calls that "soft vigilance", because what you're doing there is not 'GRRRRR' externally hardening your mind and sticking it on things. What you're doing is constantly trying to "Renew your Interest". And this is a great word (interest). This comes from inter-essay/assay; to be within something. To be within something.
It's about that conformity that Aristotle was talking about. What you're doing is constantly exploring and opening it up. So we need a model of concentration that does this soft vigilance. It's constantly renewing your interest, getting you deeply involved with something because it's going to get you intimately in contact with it. So, what kind of attention are we talking about? We don't want "TOO HARD!" (SHOUTING) "Those are... The strings [are] too hard. Concentrate. Concentrate. Concentrate. ...strings are too hard, too tight!" (stops shouting and goes to the other extreem...) "Oh just do whatever you want." That's too loose! How can we [find the middle ground]? Notice how, when I had you sort of move over my finger, it's almost like a well tuned string! It's almost got this musicality of intelligibility to it!
Well, now you need to know [and] understand what's going on with attention, because what I want to show you is attention isn't a spotlight. It's a very complex optimisation process. It's really about tuning and getting between too tight and too loose and allow you to becoming intimately involved, conformed to, participating, 'inter-essay' with whatever you're paying attention to.
OK, so why do we like the spotlight metaphor? It's even in psy- you'll find it in psychology textbooks: "attention is like a spotlight!!!" Well, because one of the things that attention does is captured very well by the spotlight metaphor. Look when I shine a light on something, it makes that stand out! It makes it stand out because it's brighter. Remember when things stand out that's salience? It makes things more salient. That's what attention does. It makes things more salient. Attention is about... now we're getting somewhere! ...and that's what I was doing here (Langer's finger attention exercise), I was making things salient to you. Features of my finger more salient to you. What's wrong with the spotlight? Well what's wrong with the spotlight metaphor is, while it picks up on [the fact] that attention is about optimizing salience, it's missing so much of what that optimization actually is. And how it can be connected to insight. So some excellent work done by Christopher Mole - again, a very complex argument and I'm not going to try and go through the whole thing - but try to get into an understanding that attention isn't something you directly do.
Let me try and give you a comparison here. Walk and practice (writes these on the board). See walking is something I can ask you to directly do. I can say "walk" and you walk! Start walking. Stop walking. Start walking again. Great. But if I say to you practice. Come on!! Practice!!! You should say to me "practice what??!". See, you practice something by optimizing how you're doing something else. If I'm practicing chess I'm not playing chess and doing some other thing "practicing"! To practice chess is to optimize how I play chess. To practice tennis is not to do tennis and some additional secret action. Practicing. What I'm doing when I'm practicing tennis is optimizing how I play tennis. Mole's point is you don't directly pay attention. But it's not obvious to you that that's the case because of both the prevalence of the metaphor and how skilled you are at paying attention. But this is how you pay attention. You pay attention by optimizing some other process.
That's why when I ask you to pay attention, I can be asking you to do many different things. I can ask you to pay attention and it means optimize your seeing so that it becomes looking and watching. I can ask you to pay attention and it means optimize your hearing so that it becomes listening. I can ask you to pay attention and that means doing the two together: optimizing your looking and you're listening so that they're coordinated well together. But notice if I say to you "I want you to pay attention but I don't want you to do that by optimizing or improving anything else you're doing. I don't want you to pay attention by improving you're looking or you're listening or you're remembering. I just want you to directly pay attention. Come on do it right now. Pay attention!!!" You don't know what to do! So you pay attention by optimizing other things you're doing.
Now, Mole talks about this as Cognitive Unison; when we're optimizing what we're trying to do is coordinate various processes so that they're sharing the same goal and working well together. Think about Plato's idea about getting various different systems to work well together.
So what we need to understand is "what is attention?". How is it optimizing, how is it integrating things together? How does that get improved in mindfulness practice and how does it bring about insight? Not just the insight into this problem or this problem. But the insight, the systematic insight, that is awakening, that motivates and empowers people to radically transform themselves so that they can escape from modal confusion and other existential dilemmas. We'll take a look at that next time. Thank you very much for your time.
Other helpful resources about this episode:
Notes on Bevry
Summary and Transcript on awakeningfromthemeaningcrisis.com