Review: Meditation from Cold Start to Complete Mastery
a favorite 'book'
For some reason, sometimes people want to know what I’m reading. Usually, the answer is “five things at once”—some fiction, some poetry, some self-help/psychology, some Substack, etcetera.
But for the past two-ish years, perhaps an accurate answer could be, “I’ve been reading other stuff in between revisiting clumps of this bizarre meditation book written by some guy who hovers on the edge of my loose internet social circle.”
Meditation from Cold Start to Complete Mastery, a frequently updated book/webpage by Mark AKA @meditationstuff, has become an important text for me. I dip in and out of it often, and I’ve read it front-to-back maybe 4-5 times. It has changed the way I view:
—what meditation is
—what emotional development is
—what the point of life is
and, along the way, some of its prose has become permanently embedded in my mind and heart. The voice in this book is frequently in my head as I walk around. A few of the more pithy meditation instructions he provides, like, “when safe, let it hurt,” have become foundational to my daily experience.
However. This book—and perhaps this is part of why I love it—is also frustrating. It’s highly dense and complicated, and the structure is bizarre. Many parts of it I don’t fully understand. It’s purportedly a manual for Mark’s idiosyncratic meditation system, but, at the end of reading it so many times, I’m not even sure I understand Mark’s system. Also, I happen to like how it makes a bunch of truly radical claims that it doesn’t fully support, but you may not.
And, wow, the prose. I have never read a more inconsistently written thing. Sometimes, Mark writes in a warm, funny way that’s alternately nerdy and embodied, smart and simple, plainspoken and complex. This is lovely, and the way Mark uses this register to casually go after the elemental properties of human life is a joy. Like in this passage:
You might get hit by a bus or meteor or your cryo chamber might run out of geopolitics or something. But, it’s possible to have a good life, anyway, and it’s possible to impeccably work to reduce the chances of such bad things while having a good, complete, rich, full, life.
Most people will probably be happier striving for and maintaining a stable romantic pair-bond and having one or more kids.
Love properly labeled and defined is probably a uniquely important thing.
Some truths are exceptionless/universal and eternal or sempiternal or timeless or outside-of-time or something. With correct method, you can know those truths by making use of whatever experiences you’ve already had (because those truths will massively redundantly inhere in those experiences without exception.)
I love this.
On the other hand. Sometimes, the prose is wildly thickety and dense. Let it be known that, with context, passages like this one—which is about progress and momentum in meditation—become easier to parse, but they still sort of break your brain while you’re trying:
…And, second, misnomer-wise, the dynamics, at a fine grain, aren't precisely "momentum-y;" it's very much more, just, that, "the right, specific things are happening," full stop. That is, top-down or spontaneous/bottom-up, or, of course, both, what's happening is generally measured, concrete, specific—sometimes patterned, sometimes globally unique—personal-causal-history-lock-and-key, more like puzzle-solving and not painting nor stirring. (To be sure, though, puzzle-solving can still be long-stretches of shimmery, flowy, fuzzy, buzzy, fizzy, rippling, vibrate-y, waft-y, etc., experiences! The language is hard to get right.)
After some time with the text, I’ve come to the opinion that this opacity is, at least in part, an intentional artistic decision, for complicated and interesting reasons that I will get to a little further down the page. However, knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
Also? I’m going to review this book as a meditation manual because that’s the only way to make this tractable. But just know that it’s way more than that. This is a record of one person’s fascinating mind, and it features a million digressions about morality, neuroscience, why you should make meals with your friends, and a bunch of other topics. A big part of why I read is to be in good company, and I love Mark’s company, and at many points the book feels less like a manual, and more like being Mark’s seatmate on a very very long flight.
So this review is of a ragged slice of a gigantic, shaggy, complex thing that I have a personal relationship with. Accordingly, it will be highly incomplete and probably wrong in major ways. Treat it as an idiosyncratic introduction to Mark’s work, not a comprehensive exegesis. Mark may disagree with many of the things I write here; I’d be interested in his response.
The first thing I want to do is get into the part of this odd, shaggy text that I think everyone should know about.
Technical Debt, My Favorite Psychology Abstraction Ever
The first question that a meditation book should answer, assuming that it’s addressed to a general audience, is what is the point of all of this meditation stuff. What is meditation supposed to do. Mark has an answer for this that’s more satisfying than any other answer I’ve ever read.
Typical answers for why you should meditate are:
—you’ll become an Awakened Being, whatever that means
—you’ll get less stressed out
—you will become more efficient at work
—you will be more loving
And, having done a bunch of inner work—meditative and otherwise—I can say that there’s not nothing to these answers. Meditation has permanently changed my inner experience in interesting ways, and maybe if I stack enough such changes on over another couple of decades, I will feel Awakened. Also, I am, indeed, less stressed and more efficient and more affectionate, to some degree.
But that doesn’t capture all of it for me, or at least, it doesn’t account for what’s been good about my contemplative life.
Mark’s answer comes way closer. Mark says the reason you meditate is to take care of your ‘technical debt.’ This is something you have, you just don’t know it maybe. You should probably address it.
Once you’ve taken care of your technical debt, it’ll be easier to have a good life, which is what we’re aiming for ultimately.
The goal of the practice is to have a good life, in the most broad and ordinary sense, on your terms, in your words, in your frame, or in no frame. That might look still, quiet, and intimate. That might look big and beautiful. (That might or might not include a good death.) That might look superficially normative and be quite nonnormative under the hood and in the cracks. Or that might quite normative in lots of ways. But the important thing is that it is good for and everyone you care about (which might be no one, everyone, etc.).
Technical debt is a concept taken from software development. Let’s say you’re working on a big complicated program. Robust accounting software, for example. And you need to build a new feature rapidly because customers are up your ass about it. So you build it, and it works, but the build isn’t perfect. There are bugs, it doesn’t fully enmesh with the rest of the program. You have incurred technical debt: some amount of mess that will make further development more difficult.
Mark says that this is pretty much the same as a lot of our mental problems, structurally. “People have really been liking this [technical debt] metaphor,” he writes, but “…it’s not even really a metaphor; it’s just what’s happening.”
I want to unpack this a little bit, so you can see it as I do. The more I chew on technical debt, the more I’m convinced it’s a great way of understanding people and how they develop, in big and small ways. It’s not entirely novel, in that it rhymes with a lot of what you find in many branches of therapy, the Enneagram, IFS, etcetera, but it’s a strikingly crisp encapsulation.
Here are some scenarios.
—From an early age, you learn to live up to the high expectations of your demanding parents by being extremely agentic, getting good at playing achievement games, becoming valedictorian, track star, making partner, etcetera. This is a feature you’ve built out. However, there is technical debt, notably in the fact that you don’t have a sense of inherent worth, or even inherent existence, when you’re not excelling according to some obvious metric.
—In your new demanding job, you learn to schedule your time effectively. However, you have a difficult time doing deep creative work, or enjoying a vacation, because unscheduled, unstructured time feels Wrong now, and this is technical debt.
—In response to a lot of rejection in early life, you learn to turn yourself into an Interesting Person, who can speak prettily of his exploits, and this does indeed make you more desired, by potential friends and romantic partners alike. However, you take on technical debt: your worth becomes pegged to this, and when you’re in a room alone, you wonder when the jig is going to be up, when people are going to see behind the facade you’ve polished, so you strain to keep the facade going at all times. (This was me for several years.)
—As a brainy software development type, you have become exceptionally good at living in your head. You are one big calculator and you are great at it. However, you have taken on technical debt in that you are uncomfortable in the fluctuating, changeable world of embodied emotions. People tell you about vibes and empathy and vulnerability and you don’t know what they mean.
—To write better songs, you become a more mechanically accomplished musician, but you find that with a greater range of options and a better sense of what’s accepted musical technique, it’s harder to just let your intuition flow into the guitar, and this is technical debt.
—When you were serving a tour of duty in Iraq, you got used to sudden unpredictable violence, and surviving this required honing your observational powers and your vigilance. But you’ve accrued technical debt: you can’t fully turn it off now, you look for the threat when you’re walking around Wal-Mart ten years later.
So in other words. Technical debt is whatever “bad” there is in your “good” strategies. It’s the coping mechanisms that are clumsy, the fear that was rational but no longer is, the habit that has outlived its use, etcetera.
I love this for a bunch of reasons. First, it makes explicitly clear what often gets buried when people analyze their neuroses: often, your dysfunction is a direct side effect of some good or at least internally rational development. Second, it furnishes a healthy end goal: try to keep the essence of your gifts while you work on the curses furnished in their acquisition. Third, it’s a model that scales up and down effectively—it can apply to everything from your unfortunate conversational tics to your crippling fear of intimacy.
It obviously doesn’t track everything perfectly. But it’s nice, and a little more complete (and useful) than casual use of the word ‘trauma.’
Mark is careful to point out that technical debt isn’t a bad thing. To lead a full life, you’ll need to overwhelm yourself, go beyond your capabilities, throw yourself into situations where your development will need to be skewed in one direction. That will create debt. However, too much debt, and you get stuck in your patterns permanently, living in a nest of fear-based conditioning, lost in a forest of mental representations of what you’re supposed to be afraid of.
With sufficient meditation, Mark says, you’ll get to a point where you can pay down ~all of your existing technical debt, and learn to pay off new debt quite fast, such that it never accrues too densely. He doesn’t say that meditation is unique in this ability; he points to good sleep, and excellent therapy, as other stuff that can pay it down to varying degrees. But he’s a fan of meditation as a method.
Context switching, pre-prep, "post-prep," becomes less and less of a thing. "How do you do so much? / I never leave my meditation cushion."
And so when the monk returns the marketplace with helping hands, they are vastly less likely to accrue technical debt, because everything is operating more efficiently, in this simplicity on the far side of complexity.
In the steelmanned ideal, they’ll be able to do so much more—more responsibilities, more details, costlessly, effortlessly, easefully. (And they’ll be, proactively, both solving and dissolving that complexity along the way.)
And, if they do accrue technical debt, as everyone does, in the course of even a single day, they can pay it down much more efficiently, because of extreme practice and skill at omni-directional "refactoring," as it were.
At one point, Mark memorably summarizes the goal as “happiness dependent on exquisitely and flexibly handling your shit.”
He occasionally, through the text, points to how this fully unwoven end state—which he says will take you about 10,000 hours to achieve—might feel. At times, these descriptions are mechanistic, talking about how a cluttered consciousness is composed of multiple dissonant workspaces, but that a cleared-out one is a single, elegant, fast space. At times, he gets more lyrical, with very Mark bits of description that point towards a state of generous, spontaneous simplicity, reminiscent of some things you read in Zen literature.
bits have flipped somewhere. you can check them, but they're just bits. so much has nebulously changed, nebulously clarified, nebulously refactored, nebulously smoothed, nebulously quieted, nebulously cleared. but there's something natural, ordinary, obvious, straightforward about it, something utterly normal about your experience. there's an easy competence, a lightness, a confidence, even while you're still arguing with your intimate partner or stressed about legacy, or money, or something. there's always something. has anything really changed at all? everything, everything; you've given up everything, lost everything, only to get it back, and everything has somehow changed, and yet somehow everything isn't the same but it's how it's supposed to be and that's somehow familiar to the point it can be hard to remember what's changed. and your mind works so differently but by the same deep-down rules it always has. and, and...
To some extent, this all tracks with my experience of meditative/emotional development. As I’ve learned to cope with my emotions and inner landscape, I do less of the compulsive stuff I used to, and my recovery from novel disturbances seems faster, in general. Less technical debt, easier to pay off. And things do feel cleaner, smoother, and lighter in a way that I find difficult to describe.
I’m hardly at this state of perfection Mark is pointing to, but the situation is a hell of a lot sweeter than it used to be.
Cool cool cool. So how does Mark suggest you go about this? Well, that’s where it all gets kind of fucking complicated.
The Meditation System, or, Wait, No, Don’t Meditate
One of my favorite things about this meditation manual is that… its author doesn’t even advocate that most people meditate.
The book begins with approximately 10,000 warnings about how meditation can go horribly wrong. They are intense.
Here are a couple of the warnings.
If you engage with these practices then you must be aware that you could permanently ruin the rest of your life or die (sooner that you would otherwise). You must also be aware that the lives of people around you may be ruined or those people may die sooner as a result of your engaging these practices.
You have to judge whether you have net enough money, food, shelter, social/relationship capital, "opportunity cost slack" to proceed. Ideally, a person either has "truly nothing to lose" or they have ample resources to last them three to seven years (just in case).
It doesn’t stop there—among these warnings, there’s a warning (in dialogue form) about the book itself, about how this text could become a totalizing mimetic object for certain neurotic people, capable of distorting your view of reality.
Do I think this is warranted? Uh, maybe!
Over the last twenty years of the mindfulness boom, the risks of heavy-duty meditation have definitely been underplayed. Fundamentally, meditation is an attempt at reconfiguring your software, and that, predictably, can go wrong in all sorts of ways. Your existing software isn’t perfect, but it’s probably survivable, and this is not necessarily true of any resculpted version of it.
On the other hand, there are a lot of ways to mitigate these risks: starting with short sessions of meditation and dialing up slowly, engaging in more gentle ‘open awareness’ style sitting, or going for embodied contemplative practices like certain slower kinds of yoga or qigong, and so on. (This podcast contains a fascinating account of someone who was having a rough time with meditation, and then switched practices, and became better instantly.) Also, you can try to obtain some degree of self-compassion before you start serious practice, such that you’re coming at it with an attitude of maybe we can befriend the mind, not maybe we can erase the mind.
My guess is that Mark has been deep into the deep dark end—I’m guessing that he’s run into a lot of bad meditation teachers, and/or has had personal trouble with other meditation systems.
Remember when I mentioned, earlier, that I thought this document was opaque for a reason? I think this is part of the reason. I think Mark has deliberately avoided making his practices super legible and appealing. I suspect that he wants to appeal to a select audience that’s willing to put some mental work into interpreting his system. This is insurance against someone frying their brain with a simplistic misunderstanding of a complex, error-prone psychological technique. I appreciate this: in my 20s, appealing, simplistic books about Zen gave me a dysfunctional meditation practice that did, in fact, fry my brain for a bit.
Also, there’s a deeper thing behind the perplexity, too. Meditation, if targeted at your technical debt, is about very particular specificities of your mental life, which nobody else can precisely understand. So, by being so hard to pin down, he’s sort of encouraging you, occasionally, just throw the book across the room and look at the indescribable things he’s pointing at. It’s almost the method of Zen koans as I understand them, but using forbidding complexity, rather than forbidding simplicity, as a pointer towards the ungovernability of being.
So. That aside. The practice. Let’s start with what I understand.
One hilarious thing about this document is that you could read it for hours and never encounter the full meditation instructions. There is a quick-start section at the beginning, but the detailed practice guide is buried under a giant heap of warnings, speculations, and personal reflections—which are much longer than the instructions themselves. But it’s worth the trip.
Mark’s conception of meditation is quite different than that of other teachers. Perhaps the main distinguishing feature is, I think, also the best part of his system: the Meta Protocol.
The Meta Protocol is simple. As part of your meditative life, frequently ask yourself—in writing or in your head—what, concretely, is going on when you meditate, and whether it’s helping, and where you think it’s going, and stuff like that. He wants you to do this a lot, and even do a Meta Protocol on the Meta Protocol at times, asking yourself whether your self-descriptions seem to be effective/accurate/helpful.
That might sound rudimentary and unremarkable to you. But that’s probably because you haven’t spent time around certain meditation methods which basically shove you along a prescribed path that has little to do with you specifically, and tell you that if it’s hurting or feels strange, that’s a necessary thing, or maybe just your fault. There are a number of these kicking around. (For example, Transcendental Meditation is a one-size-fits-all system, which gave someone close to me temporary mental problems, and when she asked the TM people for help with this, they were unhelpful.) Mark goes the opposite way.
The Meta Protocol is also a pleasant onramp to a greater global amount of introspection in your life. Many people, me included, ask the question ‘what is it like to be me’ surprisingly infrequently. Asking yourself this, a lot, can stop you from falling into a bunch of varieties of self-destruction, and lead you towards a more self-authored and less self-inflicted life.
Mark has a specific reason for including this protocol, beyond the value of introspection. He feels that a lot of meditative traditions, which focus on encouraging certain mental states, actually increase your technical debt.
This is not so difficult to understand. Simple example: maybe you’re stressed out a lot because of some emotional issue, and doing a metric tonne of body-scanning practice chills you out. Cool, fine. But the specific chill state you now access habitually might be a janky bandaid solution to the deeper developmental problem. It was better than your previous average, but it’s a cul de sac. So you’ve gone one step forward but you’re going to need two steps back eventually. (Maybe it’ll be nice to have a fun stress-reducing ability along the way, but you’ll have to put it aside temporarily.)
This is something you can maybe avoid if you’re doing the Meta Protocol, which will help you keep your eye on the prize.
But what are the meditations Mark wants you to do? Like, what are the actual actions this book wants you to perform?
Well, there are a whole bunch of them. Some are similar to traditional awareness practices: let go of what’s around you, allow everything to happen, or, alternately, try to make everything persist in your mind and notice that it doesn’t. One is a fun introspective writing practice: concretely explain something about your world in writing, and then revise/reword/scramble the writing in a playful, flowy way.
But. The one he asks you to do most is… not a typical meditation instruction. The direction is referred to in the document as ‘do and will good things if you can.’ The beginning of the direction is as follows:
will = will(/intend/plan) [that P]; do something volitional that alters expectations for future in a specific way; willing[/intending/planning/expecting/intent [to produce (an) effect (that)]; goal, purpose, for-what-purpose, for-what-further-good(ness)-If-any, for-ness, in-the-service-of
There’s a lot more detail. Mark goes into what he means by will, and do, and good. If that’s not helpful—which, for me, it wasn’t—Mark helpfully provides an example of what this practice could look like:
(a) let bodymind wander [baseline, glue that can hold it all together] 30s-5 min
(b) if notice your bodymind doing something "good," just be like "alright, cool" 30s-5 min
(c) if notice that could do/add something good, gently try [ok if bodymind does it for you], if can’t, gently take foot off trying gas completely. 30s - 5 min
(d) if notice bodymind doing something "bad," just be like "alright, that’s ok" 30s-5 min
(e) if notice that you could stop something "bad" that’s already happening, gently try [ok if bodymind does it for you], if you find you can’t, just be like "alright, that’s ok" and gently take foot of trying gas completely 30s-5 min
(f) if notice that you could stop something "bad" from starting, gently try [ok if bodymind does it for you], if you find you can’t, just be like "alright, that’s ok" and gently take foot off trying gas completely 30s-5 min
(g) if there’s something that you want to be different, and it’s good/safe/ok to do the following, try gently directly inclining, willing, intending towards that desired difference to be actualized. if anything feels gummy, jammy, bad, forced then gently take foot off trying gas completely.
(h) explore deliberate or participatory surrender, acceptance, letting go, somewhat as per (a)
(i) now patiently, slowly interleave (a)-(h) in a single practice, as you are so moved or as salience changes 30s-5min
So. You… let your mind wander, notice what it’s doing, and try to steer it in a ‘good’ direction, and try to steer away from ‘bad’ directions. And then, as practice develops, you notice other ‘good’ things that can happen with your mind or ‘bad’ things you can stop, and thus, you advance as a meditator.
That might seem meandering and unfocused. Yes, true. This is by design. Most meditation systems are depth-first: you plunge, deeply, into one area of your mind—by, say, learning how to concentrate on your breath with heroic clarity—and then you take the mental machinery thus developed and try to iron out your life with it. Mark’s is breadth-first: he wants you to mindfully do a whole bunch of different little things—small intentional changes in your thinking, exploration of different states, reflection, reverie—and thus take a million little steps towards the goal of understanding the way you function.
As Mark says: “One sort of has to ‘walk the entire mind,’ every little nook and cranny and tiny seam. That’s how the mind and meditation work.”
There’s a subtitle to this book, by the way: a Manual of Global Wayfinding Meditation. I didn’t include it before, because I didn’t know that it would make sense to you, dear reader. But maybe it now makes sense. We’re trying to safely, slowly find our way around every square inch of our consciousness, and, sensitively, work through every jagged subroutine, every shitty memory, every unnecessary bit of clenching and grasping we locate.
If this sounds potentially crazy-making, that’s probably yet another reason why Mark put in a million warnings upfront and told you to reflect constantly on what your ‘meditation practice’ is supposed to do, with the Meta Protocol.
If this seems too complicated/odd/vague/indecipherable, and you anticipate that you’ll just end up doing your own thing, well, that is actually fine with Mark. In fact, that’s inevitable. According to Mark, nobody can tell you how you should meditate, fully. The way your mind is fucked up will be radically specific. You will thus have to throw out the rules and make your own at some point. Following instructions too rigidly will lead to useless mental play-acting.
Some instructions and signposts are (probably) necessary, as figuring it all out on one’s own is a tall order. Still, there is a sense in which you will have to "figure it all out on your own," anyway, instructions notwithstanding. Receiving any instructions causes problems, as people try to "do the instructions" instead of "do the thing." This document contains one stab at a "minimum effective instruction set" — use as though "some assembly is required" where "some" means "this document and your interpretation are two ends of the most difficult game of telephone yet devised, and there’s no way it was written correctly or interpreted correctly on the first n tries."
Thus, of his instructions, he says that…
holding stuff loosely, experimentally, provisionally is good, as well as self-authoring your own stuff, explicitly or intuitively—which you’ll naturally do more and more until that eats up everything, including itself, with no remainder, long run, as it were, in some sense.
He concludes this section by writing, “do hold any particular system lightly, including this one.”
Okay. So we’re holding the system lightly. We’re doing lots of different things that could be called meditating, and reflecting on them often, to make sure they’re not hurting us. When the directions are wrong, we’re throwing them out.
But, before we throw out the rules, and after, how are we supposed to be paying down our technical debt? How does any of this stuff work?
Mark is, again, not keen on giving us any final answers.
The Mind Is Really Smart in Some Ways
In over 200,000 words, Mark never tells us just how we’re supposed to undo specific technical debts. There isn’t a list of real-world examples, of the kind you’d find in a self-help book, where he tells you what incantations are good for commitment-phobia, or arachnophobia. This book is remarkably free of concrete illustration. He says: do what feels good and right, and then, unless you die of meditation or go crazy, you’ll figure it out, and your technical debt will be paid off.
Mark never said this would be easy.
It can be helpful to realize that you need to become a genius. You need to become brilliant. You will become brilliant, at least along some narrow dimensions, in the course of doing this thing. If you strive for that, relax into it, things will go more smoothly.
The level of skill and (mostly implicit) intricate knowledge that you need to acquire is shockingly high. It’s like you need to learn every single instrument in an entire orchestra, including the ones that, at least historically, very rarely get used, as well as how to be a conductor.
That’s unusual among intro meditation books. Many will tell you things like: the problem with your life is that you lack loving-kindness, so you should learn to love more. Or: you’re too trapped in mental representations and stories, so you should sit down and stare at a wall until you get more into your moment-to-moment reality. Most tell you that it won’t be that hard to make these changes. By contrast, Mark isn’t about to tell you what your problem is, and, whatever it is, he’s not selling you on a quick, easy fix.
The closest thing we get to concrete illustration is an extended metaphor about tubes, which I barely understand. I think the thrust is roughly: the mind routes data from the world. We can think of incorrect mental representations and inappropriate habitual actions as either routing errors, or results of routing errors—kinked tubes. You go and straighten all the tubes such that your mental activity isn’t getting all tangled up, and this improved flow helps you un-kink more easily in the future. And there are many possible ways to kink up your tubes, but only one way that they can all be correctly routed, and that is the final state you’re aiming for as a meditator.
(By the way, don’t traumatic memories feel like tense little bunchy mental objects that get in the way, almost like literal blocks in the flow? And when you get over them, it feels like flowing energy has been freed up? Maybe it’s an excellent metaphor.)
So how do we do this. Well, just refer to p2: do and will good things, the stuff you can tell is good. And don’t forget the meta protocol! And the other practices!
In some ways, I disagree with this ‘you figure it out’ approach. I get the idea: my karmic debt is composed uniquely, and to untangle it, I will need some combination, that is mine alone, of wandering, deep breathing, reverie, revisiting memories, stretching, writing emails begging forgiveness, loosening my self-concept, and on and on and on. I’ll need to figure out how to fit it all together, in my idiosyncratic way. But can’t you at least give me some slightly wrong directions to iterate on, that are a little more specific, of commonly desirable states I might work towards?
But, in some ways, I agree with this approach. My reason for partial agreement is as follows.
Maybe you don’t need direction, because, ultimately, you are already going the right way. Maybe, somewhere, your being/mind/heart/intuition already knows everything it needs to know about how to come home to itself. If you just look inwards, lovingly, perhaps you will come unbent, in some ways, or fully, eventually.
There’s something weird I increasingly encounter on the contemplative path. Which is: if you don’t accidentally fry your brain with meditation, at a certain point, the mind starts to guide you somewhere. The contemplative path reveals itself. And it seems like everyone’s path eventually goes to a similar place, although the trips are different. Mystics from nearly every tradition end up saying similar things about loving awareness, oneness, the loosening of personal fixation, lightness, and so on. They just explain it with different cosmologies.
Recently I’ve been doing harsh, intense meditation on difficult emotions, with guidance from this Michael Taft video. In this contemplative mode, you establish a state of open awareness, bring up negative feelings, and then wade into them with your arms up. Every little tooth of your heartbreak and regret tears at you.
And a funny thing happens if you manage to keep your cool (and the vastness of your awareness). It’s almost like the pain goes away. But it doesn’t go away. It does something better: it melts into the largeness of your existence, becomes one with it, and, in that melting, provides evidence that you are more capacious than you possibly thought you could be.
I can’t explain how any of this works. It doesn’t feel as if it’s me doing the melting and incorporating. And I don’t know why this is working for me right now when a different thing worked a year ago. And I can’t advise that you do this specific meditation, ever—it might be totally wrong for you.
Today I had a meeting with a meditation teacher, a former Zen monk who is non-dogmatic and experienced in a bunch of different practices. After I told him about various things I was doing, he said, “it sounds like it’s already started, and if you don’t block it up, you won’t be able to stop it.”
This is similar to something Mark writes:
`there’s like some kind of universal gradient/basin/attractor that the mind/brain is always, always, alway, always trying to fall down. one single direction, which might be why correct meditation works elegance, free energy minimization, dunno’
I don’t totally blame Mark for punting on this one. Or for having faith that your mind already contains everything you need.
I think Mark’s book can probably get you to stop being narrow and dogmatic if you’re on a meditation path that’s sub-optimal, and it can help you think about contemplation in a new way. That’s what it did for me, which was invaluable.
If you’re a beginner at meditation, and you want to jump into a practice I endorse, this might not be super user-friendly. I might suggest this book instead, despite its terrible subtitle.
Mark has a zillion little insights about the mind that seem intuitively right, and a number of other ones that seem incredibly wrong. They’re all fascinating to encounter. Some of them are psychoactive: they will get you to see your ongoing experience in ways you never have.
The meditation instructions themselves are probably not the best thing about this book, but maybe I wouldn’t know, as, again, I’m not sure I’ve ever really done them, although I tried to do some version of them.
It’s just possible that Mark’s book could make you go crazy? He says so, anyway.
I adore it and will continue to grapple with it as time goes by.
One of the things I most want to do in my life is share. You’ll know I like you a lot if I start sending you poems and stuff. I want to conclude this review by sharing one of my favorite passages of this book. (A technical chunk from the middle, about tubes and representations, is excised.) Please enjoy.
Experience can hurt us! That’s weird. We don’t like to think about that. But, bullies, accidents, health scares, scary movies, looking at a low balance in our bank accounts, someone saying the wrong things to us—experiences like that can fuck us up.
We want to be strong. Sensitive to the world but also in some sense unmoved by the world. Complicated.
Herbert Simon (he coined the term “bounded rationality” and did many, very important things) gives an example of an ant: Put an ant on a very complex surface, like a rug, and the movements of its legs become very complicated while remaining coherent. The complexity of the behavior is due to both the ant and the environment.
That’s cool, in that, it does hint that a lot of what a person is doing can be offloaded to the environment.
But, don’t we also want to transcend our environments? We are so vulnerable to them. Spending time with family or getting fired from a job or all sorts of things—those are “just” sensory experiences, but they can really, really, really, really mess us up. From babies to now, we are heavily constituted by our experiences, causally determined by them. We are who are were because of a bit of genetics and then 99% parenting and junior high and high school friends. And youtube and amazon. Our hopes and dreams are heartfelt and also sculpted by disney movies (and church, synagogue, mosque…).
In any case, we learn to protect our hopes and dreams, by avoiding situations, by subtle muscle tension, by action in situations (by distracting other people, etc.) Of course, we also accidentally avoid situations where we could learn and grow, realize things aren’t as sad or cruel as we thought, realize that we could have bigger, more beautiful, more quiet, more intimate, more anything goals. And sometimes things are so tangled up that we can’t take advantage of fortuitous local evidence, can’t see it even though it’s right in front of us. Tragic.
Anyway, so we’d like a balance. In some ways we want to be sensorily and environmentally independent or transcendent, to have stable and coherent goals and plans. And in some ways we want to be sensitive, open, to being wrong, to new experiences, to being surprised, to being able to prepare for possible bad things and beautiful and exciting and surprises.
Weirdly, this state of immanence and transcendence; openness and vulnerability yet strong and resilient; sensitivity and irritability (in the technical sense) without overreaction, impulsivity, or clamping down or armoring or avoiding; non-avoidance without force; staring at the sun without muscle tension or getting burned–
this seems to be the state of love.
Rather, love seems to be the answer.
One could boil it down as:
—Input: everything, anything
—Output: love, gentle love, patient love, caring love, accepting love, parental love, romantic love, sexy love, compassionate love, love with teeth, love with claws, love with fists, love without againstness, love without opposition, love without opposite, love without remainder
There’s something here that seems stable, settled, certain, able to metabolize anything without being disrupted or stained or corrupted. Incorruptible. Pure. Yet, it is sensitive, responsive, creative, awake, sentient, sapient; not stagnant, not ossified, it learns, it grows, it spontaneously and proactively seeks and acts.
The answer to all the questions, all the seeking, all the contradictions, may just be
‾\_(ツ)_/‾ [originally there was just one shrug; i'm doing two so that at least one of them will render correctly]
Thank you to @Moonboi for his invaluable feedback on this piece.
Sasha's 'Newsletter' contains few book reviews, so this piece is not particularly representative of what’s done here.