The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Jared Janes. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt and this is the Jim Rutt Show. Listeners have asked us to provide pointers, some of the resources we talk about on the show. We now have links to books and articles referenced in recent podcasts that are available on our website. We also offer full transcripts. Go to jimruttshow.com. That’s jimruttshow.com. Our guest today is Jared Janes of Jared Janes Consulting.
Jared: Hey Jim. Thanks for having me on. This is going to be fun.
Jim: Yeah, it’s kind of fun for us both to be on here together. According to your website, it says you spend your time learning, meditating, podcasting and consulting, and of course last but not least, you are also the producer of the Jim Rutt Show.
Jim: It’ll be fun to kind of turn the thing around. You’ve edited most of the episodes. Now, you can be one.
Jared: Yeah. This is going to be a weird edit later on. I’m looking forward to it though.
Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting. I don’t know. I’m not sure I could tolerate editing my own voice. I guess I did do it once. I did edit one episode of the show just to see how it was done and then I decided never again, not going to avoid it, but I asked you onto the show, not for your relationship to the show, but because we had an interesting discussion on Twitter as people who listen to the show know and particularly people who listen to me on other people’s podcasts. I’m known to go off on a rant whenever the S word is used. Spirituality. Yeah. Anyway, we got into it on that topic once on Twitter and it’s a back and forth and I thought we at least started to approach some sort of almost agreement. I thought it might be worth, to some degree redoing that discussion and then expanding it and see where it leads.
Jared: Yeah, it sounds great.
Jim: Yeah, I mean it was a good discussion. It really was. It was lively. And since then, based on your suggestion and others, I’ve been probing more into the area that you suggest that I read Sam Harris’ Waking Up, which I did and somebody else, it might well have been Jason Snyder suggested The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young, which I’m about halfway through. So yeah, let’s get down to it.
Jared: Let’s do it.
Jim: Let me start why I cringe and or worse or start fuming, when I hear the word spirituality. The problem to me is the essence of what the word is often used for. In fact, the more I’ve read and more I’ve listened, the more I’ve talked to people like yourself and others, I can come up to a Virgin of which that word points to, which isn’t too offensive. In fact, it’s actually good. But why in the world do we have to include the word spirit in it? To my mind, it appeals to Cartesian dualism i.e the idea that mind and body are two completely separate kinds of material and are not related in the real world. It brings up to my mind at least, ghost and spooks and angels and demons and all various kinds of spirits. And that may just be an overreaction to my youthful Catholicism, which I defiantly rejected when I was 11 but that’s what that word brings up for me.
Jared: Yeah, I mean, actually I can sympathize a lot because I’ve been in the exact same place. So I grew up in a kind of hardline secular upbringing. So it wasn’t even around the church and yeah, the religion or spirituality were no goes for me for my first 26 years or something like that. And even when I started to meditate, secular mindfulness was the attractive point. I wanted to become the most optimal body mind as possible. And so it was very much a self-improvement project, but then kind of weighted my way into some of the deeper waters. Now for whatever reason, to describe the character of some of the subjective experiences that I’ve found along the contemplative spiritual, mystical path, whatever it is, they really lend themselves to religious language that if taken from an objective standpoint is obviously absurd.
Jared: But yeah, I think the one thing to keep in mind is when it’s being used correctly and not being applied to areas that it shouldn’t be, it’s primarily a subjective exploration and there is unfortunately this kind of intangible, non-material, internal kind of spirit to the practice that for whatever reason that that word is just so available and far more descriptive rather than using a more scientific language like saying that your default mode network or prefrontal cortex [inaudible 00:04:52] and we could talk about these from a third person perspective, but it doesn’t do a ton of value when we’re actually talking about the practice. So yeah, I don’t know, maybe there’s a good place to start.
Jim: Yeah. You had probably right about on where the interesting seam is, which is the difference between the first person or subjective experience and the analytical or objective third person experience. And it’s an interesting question how we integrate on one side or tease apart those two perspectives.
Jim: What’s your thoughts on that? I mean, to what degree are they two aspects of the same thing or are they two fundamentally different things?
Jared: Yeah. Well, and this is kind of the interesting thing, like you said in the beginning, that even the declaration of some sort of spirit to be in touch with does kind of immediately bring up this connotation of a dualistic perspective, saying that there’s this other thing, other part of our experience that we should prioritize. And the strange thing is that early on in the practice, it really does feel like that there is… It’s trying to become acquainted with this certain subtle, nuanced, subjective experiences that feel completely separate from our everyday material reality when we’re at work, when we’re in a job interview, when we’re going grocery shopping or something like that. But I think, while that early practice can have a lot of benefits, there can be some major milestones and shifts in perspective that start to unify those two perspectives. And this is what I would kind of in a blanket phrase point to as the juice of the practice, which is a more non-dual experience where subject object distinctions and Cartesian dualism applied in many different aspects of our life.
Jared: It starts to break down. So it’s kind of a yes and no in the sense that dualism is kind of something that’s there in the beginning. But if we go deep enough, it quickly dissolves and that brings some very interesting impacts to our moment-to-moment experience as well.
Jim: Maybe for the audience’s sake, it might be good, describe if you can remember what some of those subtle kind of spiritual, dualistic experiences might have been early on in your practice.
Jared: Well, and maybe we could also state as kind of a bit of a distinction point here. I think that it’s really common when we talk about contemplative or spiritual practices and specifically spiritual or contemplative States to emphasize the extremely extraordinary, almost magical elements of those states or those moments. And these same things come up with exploration, the psychedelic realm as well and can be induced and things like sport. It’s available in pretty much any aspects of our lives, but we tend to find it more in religious and high concentrated states. But I guess I think it’s important to separate two things here. There are the States and those are interesting and powerful and often can be big motivations to continue down the path. But what I see is the real kind of rubber hits the road is more of a trait conversion.
Jared: This is very subtle in the sense that it’s just now when I’m in that job interview, it feels like a sacred space or something, for the lack of… Or enchanted or one of these words that is problematic on many different levels. And so yeah, and really, while in the beginning, the states can be very motivating and fascinating. In the long run, it’s these character shifts that are kind of lasting and durable and very profound in shifts in how we see things. Do you want me to go into like, I mean, I can talk about some of the heightened states I’ve had that were interesting I suppose.
Jim: Yeah, that’d be great. And then I’ll share some of my own.
Jared: Cool. Cool. So we did quite a few different practices and depending on the type of practices you’re doing, the type of experiences can be drastically different. One of the first ones that comes to mind was actually an experience of pain. So speaking of Shinzen Young, as you mentioned, he has this really great equation that I think is really foundational to understanding what is happening to the psyche as we go on this contemplative journey. And that is defining suffering as pain times resistance. It’s multiplicative equals the suffering component. And the problem here is that by default in everyday life, we can’t really make a distinction between the resistance to the pain and the pain itself.
Jared: You can have these experiences in meditation from time to time where the resistance component of the suffering drops out pretty drastically or in a very clear and concisive way. One time I was on a weekend, solo retreat and meditating eight or nine hours a day. And as you can imagine, I was having some pretty extreme back pain and I’d been sitting for like an hour or so. I knew, I could tell it was about an hour or so and all of a sudden, the back pain was just screaming, it was excruciating. I was like, “Maybe I’m just going to call it, I can’t make it the full hour and a half.” Whatever it was. And for whatever reason I just decided, well screw it. I’m just going to sit through it. And so I resigned to the fact that there was going to be pain.
Jared: The moment that happened, my back pain went from basically a nine or a 10 on the scale of discomfort to about a two. So all of a sudden it felt like a very subtle constriction in the middle of my back because that resistance component wasn’t in there. And so yeah, I think that’s important because the more familiar you become with mental resistance to discomfort or even mental attraction to comfort, the inverse, the more you can kind of start seeing on a moment-to-moment, day-to-day basis, how much of your own suffering is self-created. And that was the first impactful thing that comes to mind. I’ve had a number of other interesting things, but maybe that they’re not quite as applicable to the day-to-day existence.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s actually branch a little bit here because I have it down further on my list of topics, but it comes up whenever one visits what I would call Buddhist inspired approaches. And that’s as focused on suffering and actually using the word suffering in a somewhat peculiar way.
Jim: You come away reading this stuff. I mean, Sam Harrison in particular, seems to think that all of life is suffering. I go, “What the fuck?” Right? We may have our aches and pains and problems and this and that, but is it reasonable to think that all of life is suffering?
Jared: Well, I think the first thing to do when we look at the suffering question is definitely to look at the translation. Well, life is suffering is a very provocative statement. I think it would be actually more skillfully translated as life is pervaded with unsatisfactoriness. The real rub is that this subtle unsatisfactoriness which every human experiences from a certain degree in the sense that we pursue goals and the hopes of being able to achieve them and possibly get to a place where circumstances are right and we’ve kind of arrived and sometimes we can tell ourselves these stories about, “Oh, it’s all about the journey.” And conceptually knowing that, that’s not entirely true is helpful. But there’s a different way of seeing that sometimes we’re still operating under these assumptions, that if we could only get or if we could only avoid, or we could only be content, if the circumstances came in the right place, suddenly I would be happy and there’d be nowhere to go. I’d just be in that moment.
Jared: I think that’s a far better description. And the interesting thing too is that this unsatisfactoriness is very pervasive and it’s very subtle. It’s not really pronounced and if it’s always been there, it’s not really going to draw much of our attention. One of the things that I can think of actually as a slight digression is the simple fact that when I was growing up, I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when I was born. So it’s a genetic condition and one of the results of this is that you have a lot of GI problems growing up. So, it just was a standard thing that every day or a couple of every other day or something like that, I was going to have some sort of issue with my stomach and some days were worse and some days were better.
Jared: When I was in my early 20s, I went on a diet that for whatever reason allowed my stomach to kind of reboot. All of a sudden I felt what it was like to not have any stomach discomfort at all, a zero. In that moment I realized, “Oh my God, my whole life I’ve been at a stomach discomfort level of five at a minimum. And I never knew that there was a zero.” And this is very similar to the kind of psychological effect of chronic low grade unsatisfaction with what is happening in the moment. And the more we unravel this and understand the mechanisms that lead to this unsatisfactoriness the more rich kind of life gets. Because there’s nowhere to go and you kind of just basking in the moment, I suppose-
Jim: That doesn’t sound too good. Sounds like a bunch of fucking hippies in mud huts. Isn’t unsatisfactoriness, what keeps us getting up in the morning and punching the world, making progress and all that sort of stuff? I don’t want to be… What is it? Unsatisfactoriness, I want to be on satisfied with the way things are. I mean, as you know I’m fairly involved in something called GameB, which people can find out more about it. The GameB group on Facebook or gameb.wiki. Thinking about it, here I am, retirement age, very in theory, well settled economically, et cetera. And yet I have a strong unsatisfactoriness about the world. That there’s something fucked about our world that I don’t like, I don’t want to leave it to my descendants, I would like to help make the world better. What’s wrong with that?
Jared: Nothing really. Unfortunately, I have say I agree with you. I’m going to come from the same place, but I think we could probably reuse this suffering equation from Shinzen to talk about the way… There can still be pain. There can still be discomfort. So the discomfort is a wanting to make things better or address some sort of challenges or help somebody other. We have a lot of biological drives that are there for the right reason and it’s simply the way that we react to these drives. It’s not just the negative ones, it’s actually the positive ones too, in a sense that we’re adding this whole layer of wanting something to either go away when it’s not, or wanting something to stay. We know it’s going to go away because there’s nothing that’s permanent in our experience.
Jared: In both of these things, create this unsatisfactory quality that pervades all of our moment-to-moment. So it’s kind of like a meta unsatisfactoriness that we’re trying to exclude. But regardless, negative and positive valence continue to operate on the human physio psycho experience. So it’s the drive is still there. You’re just not so… It’s like being on a roller coaster and throwing your hands up and enjoying the hell out of it versus gripping onto that handlebar. You have some sort of control about where it’s going to go or not wanting it to turn that way or not liking the angle on this and resisting the ride that you are on regardless. So yeah, I don’t know. Does that make sense?
Jim: A little bit. Though, I can’t say I’ve ever felt like I was existing the ride I was on. In fact, my business philosophy, people say, “What is it about this philosophy?” Fuck. I never paid any attention to having a business philosophy. After I retired, I decided that in retrospect, my business philosophy could be summarized in the Hunter S. Thompson sentence, “Faster and faster until the thrill of speed exceeds the fear of death.” So I was always a letter fly motherfucker kind of person.
Jim: Right? And just go for it, right? Don’t worry too much, right? If shit hits the wall, it explodes, which it did once, oh, well, all right. We just get up, pick herself up, dust ourselves off and go do it again. So I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this white-knuckled, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Life sucks. Life sucks.”
Jared: Yeah. Well, the white-knuckle metaphor is a very provocative one because it illustrates and kind of characterizes this resistance, but obviously it’s on a spectrum here, right? And everybody’s psychology is probably leading to more or less of this dissatisfaction in their moment-to-moment experience. And the weird thing is that even if it is a small portion of our experience, this kind of speaks to the subtleness of a lot of the components here in the contemplative unraveling. A good metaphor that I like is kind of, if we were to look at ourselves or our experience as being comprised of a puddle of water, I suppose. So all of our experience, the totality of our experience is summarized in a puddle of water.
Jared: There is a big difference between there being a drop of red dye that colors the entire experience and all of a sudden it has this lens or you’re kind of living in this very subtle, this redness quality. And then what it looks like when you go from just 0.01% of dissatisfaction to zero dissatisfaction, the counterintuitive thing here is that it feels significantly different. All of a sudden you can see from one edge of the puddle to the other instead of three feet in front of your face. Everything’s vast, everything’s open, everything is very light. And yeah, I mean, it’s hard to explain but this is part of understanding the component of resistance to our experience, is having these subtle experiences that when you say them don’t really sound that interesting. And that’s why maybe sometimes this religious language is a way of communicating the profundity of the experiences. Because it sounds a lot more interesting to dwell in the kingdom of heaven than it does to slightly dampen your default mode network so that there’s a less of a filtering experience, from the larger aspect of your brain or something. Right?
Jim: Yeah. Though maybe, I’m sure it’s just me though there are other probably people like me that now when you taught me about that kingdom of God and all that stuff, all my natural knee jerks just go, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” Right? We’ve had a world plagued by these religions, as far back as anybody could find. It seems like we seem to have a weakness for it. Right? Even Sam Harris says, “Yeah, you walk into the aisles of any spiritual bookstore and you’re confronted with the yearnings and incredulity of our species by the yard.” You’ve been into this spiritual section of a bookstore. You go, “Holy shit.” Right? Sleeping Under Pyramids, Astrology, Regressing the Past Lives.” Oh man, probably this day and age, probably some flat earth stuff in there that humans seem to have a weakness for these complicated and ungrounded stories.
Jim: As I’ve learned more in particular, I have really spent some time trying to learn about this stuff. I can definitely see where the benefit comes from. I mean, there’s a large body of work about just the plain old physiological benefits of equanimity that comes through things like meditation or other kinds of contemplated practices. And I’m at least willing to provisionally buy this idea of curing something like unsatisfactoriness without making you lay in bed all day, which would kind of suck. But I still resist being taken anywhere near the kingdom of heaven or any goddamn alters or chalices or incense burning around that horseshit. Right?
Jim: And I’m sure I’m not the only one. I mean, Sam’s book, Sam Harris’s book, he’s kind of a bummer of a dude, I’m afraid. I mean, he does not seem like a very happy guy. Right? Which seems odd for a person who talks about the endless hours, including like a year one time doing nothing but meditate. I mean, Jesus, if I was as miserable as that mother fucker. But nonetheless, he’s an atheist too and yet he’s able to sort of buy into this, but it doesn’t seem to have made him happy, he doesn’t seem like a very happy dude at all.
Jared: Yeah, I guess, well the interesting thing is that when we say happy, even happiness, right? So, one of the… I think there’s a million ways that we could dissect it, but one of my favorite definitions of what happiness is, doesn’t really have anything to do with joyful, elated states, but it’s actually just being okay with everything the way it is in this moment. Right? And sometimes that might be mean being okay with being annoyed or wanting to tell the Muslim world what they need to be doing, whatever it is. Right? Sam Harris’ variant or anybody else. The psychology of a human still seems to unfold itself.
Jared: And maybe even to make a connection the last episode was with Hanzi Freinacht and I think one of the really important things to think of here is that there are multiple levels of human development and they interact with each other in interesting ways in the sense that if your rational understanding of your place in the world and kind of how the world works is very undeveloped, maybe very solipsistic or very in-group oriented where you only can have compassion for the people that are the same religion or come from the same piece of land as you or something like that.
Jared: You can still have some of these really profound spiritual experiences. And unfortunately the way you experience it will be through the lens of how developed you are in the… I really like the phrase, the growing up component of your personal development and the spiritual stuff is more related to a waking up aspect of our experience. But they’re intimately connected and unfortunately a lot of our traditions that explore these waking up elements of our experience, were created in a pre-modern age. And so they used magical, crazy ideas of how the world works. And they use those, those elements to describe what the path is like I suppose. And yeah, I think maybe it’s just a happy accident that they’re being able to unboundedly creatively choose the most provocative things that they wanted to, that were not housed by logic and reason and science, it still somewhat is… There’s still value in the sense that it could be easier to point out parts of our experience that are profound using some of the religious language still.
Jared: If I’m using it, it’s always from a very critical lens and one way it’s complete bullshit, and in another way it’s far more true of what my experience is actually like at this moment.
Jim: Yeah. I love that. I love that line. I still don’t fully understand it, but I would like to over the next year or so learn more about just what that line is because you’re not the only smart person that has said things like that. Right? And unlike Sam, you don’t seem to be a miserable fuck either. Right? You seem like you enjoy life, which is good. While I play a hardheaded scientific realist on TV, or at least on my podcast and other people’s podcasts, truth is, I’ve actually had lots of these experiences and I did LSD a half dozen times when I was a young adult. I’ve done other non-mainstream but powerful psychedelics probably 100 times.
Jim: I’ve had very deep what I call mystical experiences, typically involved in the outdoors and certain kinds of lighting and times of day, et cetera. I think I even did it on one of our podcasts. Maybe it’s when I did with Hansey or I can flip myself into a state of non-self that it’s essentially just perception and processing without a self there. But can only do it for about two seconds.
Jim: And so I do all these things and they’re kind of cool. And for a while I was doing some things with binaural sounds and guided meditation and stuff. It was all interesting and it’s kind of enjoyable, but I guess I don’t see anything profound. Have I not gone far enough or am I just a naturally shallow person?
Jared: Well, that’s a big question.
Jim: Could be either. Right?
Jared: We’re all shallow in our own ways. Right? Yeah, I don’t know. Well, one thing that I think that you and I both have in common, as you said, I seem like a pretty happy person, a lot of people that start this spiritual project are there because life’s tough and they’re not happy and they want to address this very obviously pronounced higher than normal or higher than average amount of unsatisfactoriness in their experience. Then there’s other people myself, I’d include where I was extremely happy. I was always happy. I grew up as being in my family, known as the kind of always equanimous, always smiling, making the best of every situation person. I never really felt any kind of lack of meaning or purpose in my life.
Jared: And yeah, I was very selfish already psychologically, other than maybe some ego aggrandizement. I didn’t really have many pathologies to solve with this. I actually went into this project with the idea of making my best self, I could possibly create and it definitely, as you said, the practices do help us from a just kind of day-to-day operating perspective, how we choose to use our attention is a really important skill. It’s not only developed in meditation, people live certain lives as you said, being in nature, kind of away from some of the abstract concepts and things of everyday life enabled to kind of just connect to the moment and feel like you’re part of nature. That dissolves some of that boundary.
Jared: Doing deep concentrated things like just reading a lot and being able to sustain your attention, make connections can be a good way of practicing mindful techniques and a lot of these can also be applied toward the psychological trauma and stuff like that as well, I don’t really have much experience with that. But there’s a number of ways that it enhances our experience in a very real way. I guess the best, the best way that I can think of. I think you’ve mentioned before, the stories we tell about our experiences largely confabulated by the mind, there’s a lot of psychological experience that put people in situations where they’re being subtly or subconsciously motivated to do something. And then they ask the person why and they’ve come up with some story that’s somewhat self-coherent, but not ultimately true in any real way.
Jared: Because they don’t have access to, or not access to but visibility of all of the machinery that’s leading to decisions and things like that. And one of the things that comes up as you continue to go down this path is understanding the intentions that are arising and your moment-to-moment experience that lead to you doing something. The very fascinating thing that we start to realize is that because we’re a ego trapped behind the head in most of our waking life, like you said, we have these moments where that kind of gets stripped away and it’s just process happening and unfolding in an unbounded way.
Jared: But when we’re constricted into this agent who is separate from this environment trying to get what he or she wants, it can be frustrating. And all of our decisions are self-oriented. It’s like what do I need to be happy in this situation? And the more you start to realize how prevalent this is in our moment-to-moment experience and this is deeply connected to that unsatisfactoriness, what can I get from my environment that I don’t have? The more you realize that you’re working less in harmony with others. And so this is maybe something that I said that was kind of provocative and the game topic on Twitter where I said, without sufficiently deconstructing the ego, collectivist action is going to be really hard to solve because everybody’s acting selfishly and the rub is we don’t know that we’re acting selfishly.
Jared: So we have to kind of put ourselves in those spaces where self other distinctions start to dissolve in order to be acting from a place of… Working toward a common group goal. Maybe that’d be one example of very tactical stuff and that’s connected directly to some of the GameB discussion that we haven’t as well these days.
Jim: Yeah, and as you know in my recent essay, A Journey To GameB, I laid out a couple of good sized sections on psycho technologies for exactly that reason. I would say I’m less sure of exactly what and exactly how, but it does seem to me that contemplated practices, psychedelics and neurofeedback, neurostimulation even who knows, may allow us to operate better together as coherent groups and cohesive groups than we do in our current kind of toxic society. Let me go back on a couple of other things that you talked about in passing. One is indeed my favorite topic of the confabulator. This isn’t a really to my mind, hugely important topic and maybe more central to our actual human way of being than we’d like to know. The earliest good work on the confabulator comes from the split brain experiments of Michael Gazzaniga and his mentor, I forget his name right off the top of my head where the corpus callosum, the big giant fiber that connects the right and left hemisphere of the brain were severed. And then images were presented that only one half of the brain could see.
Jim: Typically, the right brain and which does not usually have much language capability and people would make up these unbelievable stories to explain what they had seen and make up stories that somehow the thing that they had seen but didn’t see gets embedded into a story, et cetera. And Gazzaniga and people he worked with called this confabulation. A recent book I read goes further in an amazing way and I’m going to read this book again and then I’m going to have the author on the podcast and the book’s called The Mind is Flat and the author is Nick Chater C-H-A-T-E-R.
Jim: He takes the really radical perspective that we are nothing but a series of memories which can be searched in parallel and then a confabulator which tries to make the best sense out of them that it can in a story that it tells to ourself.
Jared: Yeah. I think it is a largely true description of what is happening in human cognition. And so this is where maybe that spirit word comes in. The interesting thing is that our experience is also pervaded by non-conceptual stuff. So we have our feelings and emotions and understanding what it means to be a body has all these different sensory organs that are constantly taking a bunch of information from our experience as well. And yes, that’s being incorporated directly with the mind process. What’s interesting is that so many of the practices that we’re doing is actually aimed at looking in between the thoughts and the stories or deconstructing the thoughts and the stories and seeing how they’re kind of… Where they’re coming from and seeing that they’re confabulations.
Jared: When we see it in a real deep way, all of a sudden we kind of take ourselves a little less seriously. These ideas like, “Well, I mean they could be kind of true.” And yeah, we do have other tools to be able to help out like the scientific method where we can actually put them into the test to help orient closer to what is actually happening. But the interesting thing is that I think a lot of what’s happening and another reason that action becomes a little bit more skillful, I mean not a little bit, a lot more skillful is that we get so tunnel-visioned on the loud conceptual elements, the thoughts, the ideas, the images of our experience and don’t see what’s kind of in between, which is the feelings. And there’s also an element of our experience that pervades every… That is prior to, it feels… I’m not making any kind of objective claims here, but there is a feeling of a more raw, just simple knowingness that you can start to tap into and you realize that that knowingness is not just attached to the little loud sensory experiences.
Jared: It’s also attached to more subtle things in between the space in between, the silence in between. I think you’ve talked about hearing the song lists, a song or whatever it is.
Jim: Yeah. The song with no words. I mean, when I get into very, very deep… With the heaviest psychedelics or the deepest trances or a shitload of nitrous oxide, I always get to this point where the same song is playing and it has words but it doesn’t have words. It’s just the weirdest fucking thing.
Jared: Yeah. I mean, and that’s the weird thing, right? We have these very subtle elements of our experience which just start are never present in our moment-to-moment experience. And I think this is what a lot of those major trait shifts like they talk about kind of hitting certain milestones where all of a sudden your perspective is completely shifted. It can be not through effort but just implicitly running in the background where you’ll kind of have a broader awareness of the context of your thoughts and feelings and everything like that.
Jared: It kind of expands the available information to cohesively make decisions. I think this is what it feels like at least and it points to a lot of the discussions about meaningfulness, how to navigate toward the meaningful elements of our experience. It requires us to be available to all of our senses and everything that’s going on. And if we get constricted into one small chain, maybe an idea or a thought of or a string of words and images drawn together. While that is going on, we can also be in touch with our emotional experience and maybe the emotional experience of others around us because we’re social humans, if we’re aware of it, we sense into other people’s reactions as well.
Jared: All of a sudden there’s this larger coherence that can arise instead of being localized into just one tiny element of our experience. And that constriction comes from having agendas about things being different than what they should be, even if it’s already there. One of the great and simple definitions of this big word enlightenment that I like is simply the complete cooperation with the inevitable. What has happened and you are only looking forward as opposed to being stuck on the things that you wish were different. And so yeah, I don’t know, for whatever that’s worth, that’s pulling a number of threads together and seeing if they work for you.
Jim: Yeah. The last part I like a lot. I mean, people who’ve worked with me and known with me that is very, very similar to the advice, my cheap five cents worth of psychological advice is fuck the past. That’s why they call it the past. Right? That’s basically the ruddy in psychotherapy, which I can give to anybody for a nickel. Right? Why the hell do we get so wrapped up in the past, can’t do anything about it. All kinds of fucked up things have happened to all of us. Right? And not a Goddamn thing we can do about it. Let’s focus on moving forward, but I want to hit a couple of other things first. Let’s retouch on that. But just the science touchpoints, one that speaks to the sense that our actions are more ineffable than we likely know, the work of Benjamin Libet, the famous Libet experiments which show reasonably convincingly and as far as I know, they’ve not been refuted.
Jim: Anybody knows a reputation of Libet let me know. But it appears we make a decision like to move our hand to pick up a glass of water before we’re consciously aware of it, so that our consciousness is essentially the movie of rather than the mechanism by which the decisions are actually made. The other one, and this is a book I recommend, I don’t know how many times, I’m going to do it again. It’s by Antonio Damasio and it’s called the feeling of what happens, body and emotion in the making of consciousness.
Jim: He’s a clinical psychologist and he goes into some of his cases of people who have certain kinds of prefrontal cortex injuries where the emotional signal doesn’t get to the decision making at all and they literally would starve to death because they couldn’t decide what to have for breakfast. At the end of the day, most of our decisions are not actually analytically derived by some Aristotelian logic or some such. We’ve got them sort of roughly framed up and then emotion tips the hand for us. Right?
Jim: That’s what’s really going on and I think both Libet and Damasio are very strong support for that perspective. Let me also jump back to something that you talked about that caused my ears to really pick up and if true, this would be cool and maybe a good way to rebrand all this stuff. Could one say that becoming an expert at meditative contemplate of practice is basically learning how to hack the confabulator?
Jared: Yeah. I mean, this is the weird thing, right? To understand the machine, if you understand how it’s being made, it gives you some influence on when it’s being constructed in the future, just because there’s an awareness of it. It’s kind of the difference between being a UI designer who’s putting together the different elements for a website, but then there’s also this underlying source code that is actually the thing that’s creating the images and the interaction that you’re having with the screen. And so a lot of yeah, that confabulator is kind of the process of understanding the source code of our mind, the fundamental components. The better you understand the system, the easier it is for it to work in harmony, I suppose. I don’t know.
Jared: Yeah, it’s a weird thing here. As you say, it’s like you’re not driving, but your action is dependent on how much information, how much bandwidth you’re getting in your moment to moment experience. And if that can include the source code, it can be really powerful.
Jim: That’s an interesting thought. But I may have a slightly different thought. I’m sort of thinking out loud here, so this might end up being jibberish, but I’m trying to actually formulate here on the fly away that if getting good at contemplated practice allows one to hack the confabulator, how one could actually use that to steer the ship? And that is, if we assume that Libet is essentially right and Damasio are essentially right that a whole series of unconscious mechanisms end up making the final decision. But nonetheless, those unconscious processes have to be working on something. And what they’re working on is our memories plus our conscious contents. Now interestingly, our conscious contents also include, and maybe only for humans, something called internal talk. We’re talking to ourselves internally.
Jim: Fairly often, in fact.
Jared: All the time.
Jim: Yeah. Maybe not all the time. Maybe not when we’re actively engaged in a hardcore activity, the action mode network, but when we’re in the default mode network, we’re certainly talking to ourselves a lot. And so what happens if rather than just letting the unconscious throw up with the fucking wants, this level of awareness that’s hacking the confabulator intentionally while watching the moving parts of the confabulator from inside decides what new internal tokens, i.e words to shove into conscious content. And then you’re not exactly sure what the confabulator will do with it, but you do know when you change the content, it changes the output of the confabulator. And if you were to test this, you could become perhaps fairly good at out hacking the confabulator. Instead of allowing unknown words that pop up from the unconsciousness, let this intermediate level of awareness pop words into the conscious frame. Is that insane or is that neat, reasonable?
Jared: It’s reasonable. But again, the paradoxical element here is that something similar to that process does happen. The wider you open your moment-to-moment experience in less hyper-focused and tunnel vision, we get uncertain elements of it, it allows for these disparate connections and awareness of the thoughts. Most of the time, we’re not aware of the vast majority of the thoughts that come up, they kind of just go under the radar and we’re very subtly aware of them or something like that. One of my early meditation was just watching thoughts and they’re weird. They just spontaneously pop out of nothing. And if you get focused on one of them, all of a sudden they start building on each other. But a lot of times they just come out of nowhere and you’re just watching them pop up, anyways.
Jared: So if you’re opening the playing field for all of the potential thoughts to arise, it gives you a far better measure of what to do. But here’s the interesting thing, especially when we’re talking about thought. Thoughts are a conceptuality, mind conceptuality images and words and sounds as we’re covering mentally generated content. They’re a very important part of how we’re navigating the world. But the interesting thing is that the more you become aware of your embodied experience, a lot of people would say emotional or intuitive, you start to realize that the body is far more informed to actually make decisions even though the mental content is kind of triggering those emotional reactions of go toward it or go away from it. And here’s the other interesting thing. I think this is why it’s still important because if we’re saying we’re not controlling your thoughts, then why the hell do we read in philosophy or do in science, right?
Jared: We don’t have control over any of it. But the thing is, is that the more conceptuality we feed ourselves, it actually permeates our psychology and burrows it’s way deep in. So, the intuitions are kind of a combination of all of the things, all of your prior experience that is… But it’s subtle because it’s non-conceptual because you have our embodied movement is probably evolutionarily far older than the mind-oriented version of it. And so you kind of have to have these two modes working together to optimally move through your experience. And it creates this space where this is where sometimes the word that has a lot of baggage with it is weird. It requires sometimes that there’s a faith in your intuition and you have no idea why, and you know that any story that comes up, any confabulation of why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing, is not really true? Even though there is, we can’t always say that. There are truths in all of our experience, but our mental content is far less true than we assume.
Jared: When we’re in this subject object, dualistic default human mode, we give most of our attention to the thoughts and the memories and less to the actual embodied sensorial experience of what’s happening in that moment. And if we want to tune in to the flow of things, this is why we call it flow. When you’re in playing the sports or something like that, or having a great conversation, it’s an embodied thing. It’s felt. It’s not a thought, not thought process.
Jim: Well, I would argue that thoughts might be part of that. Right?
Jared: Definitely part of it. Yeah.
Jim: For instance, I’ve written about how one of the ways I solve hard problems is to go for a walk and get my head in a state where it’s having a conversation with itself about the problem.
Jim: I do this particularly for a really difficult programming problem. I still write software from time to time and being not an everyday professional and as good as I used to be. But if I can run into a dead end and I can go walk for 20 minutes and let my brain have a conversation with itself only about the problem and about nothing else, it’s astounding how far I can… I’m almost like a spectator at this show. It’s really quite amazing and it’s a routine way. I solve problems and the body is probably in the loop of helping choose what the next word from the unconsciousness is in this dialogue. And to your point, why study or why work, why read books?
Jim: The other thing that’s key is our memories are the raw material from which the unconscious is hauling stuff up. So the more relevant stuff you have in your memory and the more it’s linked correctly, i.e you actually have proper knowledge structures in your brain rather than just the garbage that so many people have. They have a whole bunch of disconnected words, but they’re not structured in a rich fashion. Then the intuitions and your memory and the structures of your memory work together to produce this dance of internal conversation, which was some kind of magic pre-frontal light self-like touch stays converged on the problem rather than wandering off by what I’m going to have for lunch or something. And it’s just amazing to watch this dialogue take place and fairly rapidly solve the problem.
Jared: Yeah. And I would say the core mechanism is as long as there’s a strong intention to stay with something, we’ll stay with it. And the more you practice staying with something that the easier it is to do so. Yeah, I agree conceptually that is huge. It’s a big part of it. And even if you get into the deep waters of the contemplative space, you spend a lot of time reading and understanding the philosophy behind this stuff, then it just comes down to putting it into practice. So, in your sense, what I would say is that the thought is kind of allowing us to explore a certain territory or problem or whatever it is, but the body is actually the judge.
Jared: So it’s saying yeah, that makes sense or no, that doesn’t. And this also gets kind of echoed if we look at the field of persuasion, what’s the best way to convince somebody of something? It’s not to convince them through a logical argument, it’s to arise a certain emotional reaction from them of agreement. There’s tricks you can do to the other end too, where you want them to get them to against something so that then they’re willing to fight it or something like that. We might be saying a lot about some of our geopolitics right now, but yeah, the emotion, the body, the feelings are kind of the… They’re the vehicle. And while they might be driving based on what the mind is serving and what the mind is… And other big thing here is, as you say, the body’s intuitions is informed by previous mind content.
Jared: So they are intimately connected. But yeah, I would say when I’m going on a hard problem and thinking about it left and right, I then realize that once it’s actually time to make a decision and put it in action, I need to stop thinking about it and just feel into the experience, this area would be a perfect example. I’ve thought about a lot of ways that this could go, but I consciously, as soon as I win in here, set the intention of having no agenda of where it heads and leaving myself kind of open to the winds and you obviously are bringing a bunch of structure to the stew. So I can kind of draft off of your conceptual winds, I suppose.
Jim: Yeah. I’m a windy motherfucker. No, doubt about that. We’re probably at a fairly similar place, when we may think about it slightly differently, I see this internal talk mediated by unconscious emotional states, which are coming from the body and possibly also loops from the conscious state and the conscious contents. It’s just a very complicated multidimensional dance.
Jim: I don’t necessarily say anybody is in control. As Damasio say, you can’t take any part out of it and have it still work if you didn’t have your conscious contents it wouldn’t work or at least would be no better than a chimp, right?
Jim: I actually would be difficult as a chimp. So you’ve got to have them all. Let’s move on now we’re on now-
Jared: Let me-
Jim: Goddammit, we’re having a good time. Go ahead.
Jared: Yeah. Let me maybe add something there too, to put a little bit of meat on this bones of the rub, the reason that it’s so terrifying to think that we’re not in control even though we feel like we’re in control is because you’re like, “Oh my God, this thing that’s completely unaccessible to me, it’s happening in the moment and I’m kind of victim to thinking that I’m the agent and the situation.” And when we have a lot of evidence to point to the fact that actually it’s just kind of processes unfolding and this little story that’s coming up, from the tiny element of your brain is just confabulating things.
Jared: This actually speaks to the most profound experience that I had, which I guess, Sam would categorize this as a no self experience is where after being on retreat, I came back the next day and not while sitting, this is another thing that some people think, is that all of your spiritual unfolding has to happen while you’re sitting on the cushion. But I was just kind of hanging out the next day, had been at my house and mulling over some of the concepts that came up without the self on this retreat and spontaneously just dropped into this space where all of a sudden, all of those mechanisms that the confabulator was suddenly exposed to me. It was like knowing I was a puppet, to instantly go into being able to feel the strings as they were being pulled.
Jared: And that was profound, and all of a sudden there is no agent. There’s just processes unfolding. There was such a profound experience and it happened while I was just walking around and it lasts for a few weeks, but that was really when I had been already meditating for three or four years, but that was when my real practice started. So yeah, just a fun little kind of correlation here. It was just saying yes, the confabulator is real and it can be seen.
Jim: Yeah. To my point I’m just thinking, I’m just going to think some more about this. How does one use these methods to get inside the confabulator, deconstruct it and hack it, to make it do one’s bidding? Interesting.
Jared: Well, unfortunately the answer is you got to get out of the way.
Jim: Which is now the transition to the next big topic, which you just set up perfectly, is suffering is something these guys talk about a lot, but they talk at least as much about self. Right? And what is self? Right? And they have somewhat different perspectives, though they all come back at some level to some degree of qualification to say life is an illusion.
Jared: Yeah. We could approach this a bunch of different ways. I mean, one of the first things to say I think is that again, translations especially, a lot of this language has come from a Buddhist context, Eastern and Tibetan is a very different language. And before that Sanskrit and other ancient languages, kind of where the source material for all this stuff and we’re translating it over to English. And I think there’s a lot lost in that process. And a lot of people, we all spend their whole careers trying to do some work to iron out some of these things. And so one way of thinking of the self is that it’s your personality. It’s like who you are, the unique expression of personality, human psychology that you have. I think that, that still exists, that, that’s still runs, that exists.
Jared: The problem though is that our confabulator, and this is on a moment-to-moment experience, as we make stories up about our psychology, well, I like this and I don’t like this and I have this strength and I hate this thing and I love this one and this person’s an asshole, whatever it is. We believe those stories like they’re true. We don’t think they’re confabulations. And so all of a sudden we start drawing this picture of this, of this person, this Jared. “Here’s all of his preferences and here’s all the things.” But what is happening as we start to see the process at that confabulation as it’s arising and we become aware of it and notice the source code of it, we start to see that oh, it’s a confabulation, it’s approximation.
Jared: If we really understand it, we realize that that psychology is constantly changing. If it’s constantly changing, then it’s not a thing that we can orient toward. And the other element here is that not only do we believe this idea of some sort of static self or ideal self, and probably a lot of this comes from our kind of Judeo-Christian Western perspective. And then there’s a physiological correlation in the sense that there’s this sensation or feeling that we have locality in our experience, like I’m behind my eyes. In some cultures it’s different. That’s behind their… It’s their heart. They see it as the center of the self. But for whatever reason the confabulator says, “Okay, here’s the solid story. This is who we are. Where are we located in this situation?” It puts us in a place.
Jared: And so breaking it, it requires us to both look at the stories, deconstruct them and understand that there’s gaps and they conflict with each other and none of them are permanent. And when you do that, then there’s no kind of lasting aspect of who we are. And then often when we have these insights, it can release that feeling of having a certain location in our experience. All of a sudden we realize that everything that we’re experiencing right now is confabulated. So, it’s in some sense not true, right? Not ultimately true, but if it’s not true in the sense that you’re separate, really that’s what we’re talking about here is the truth of being separate from the world. If it’s not ultimately true, then we all of a sudden are connected with the larger world. And your experience goes from being in one place behind your eyes to then just being, whatever’s happening, you’re in the matrix.
Jared: It’s all equally fabricated. What we’re seeing and the stories we’re saying, and then the realness is actually… If there is a candidate for what’s real in your experience, what’s lasting? It’s some of this stuff that really is described well as saying spirit. It’s this intangible, raw knowingness that doesn’t have an appearance. It doesn’t have a taste, it doesn’t have a smell. It’s just this weird knowingness. But it’s so subtle that if we get fascinated with the stories, we lose track of it. But it’s also not something that’s foreign because as soon as you see it, it’s always like… It’s kind of rediscovering it. Like, “Oh, that.” Yeah. And that’s why I call it waking up. Oh, you wake up, you’re like, “Oh, this is a dream. This is a dream. Here’s the real.” The only thing that’s not changing my experience is just that there is an experience and there’s that equality to everything, all my sensories input.
Jared: That’s common and that’s why a lot of traditions will call this the true self. Buddhism doesn’t make this claim where they usually say no self, which kind of leaves things a little bit more nebulous and I think there’s pros and cons in that approach. But yeah, I don’t know, that’s coming to mind at the moment when we talk about this idea of what a self is.
Jim: Well, that’s good. I like it. Very evocative. Yeah. Here’s my take on it, which is that the self is basically, it’s an analogy. An analogy is never perfect, but it’s essentially a program that runs on the brain and sometimes it’s not running, right? When we know it’s not running when we’re in a coma or in deep delta wave sleep. And I think more interestingly, we know it’s not running when you take a mega dose of LSD, I one time did 400 micrograms. Jesus Christ. Right? True ego death. Right? There was no there, there right? It was just some entirely different kind of state. And as I mentioned early on, I can knock the self offline for about two to three seconds with just a certain little brain move. So I basically cause the program to suspend and swap out the disc and then come back two seconds later.
Jim: So, it seems to me that say it’s not real, it’s not quite what I want to say at least. What I want to say is that it is not the only thing that can run on your brain. It’s just a program that runs… I shouldn’t say just because it’s the most important program that runs on our brain, because it’s the program that allows us to survive in the world. It’s the piece of machinery that actually makes decisions. You can’t make decisions or take… Actually, decisions are not the most important thing actually, it’s actions, right? You can make all the decisions you want, you don’t take any action, you’re still going to starve to death. And so when I think about what is it that conscious cognition is actually for, it’s to essentially connect perception to memory, to processing, and then optionally from time to time trigger an affordance on one of the conscious contents. That could be as simple as walk away or approach, move to the left or the right, pick it up and use it as a hammer, et cetera. And to do all those things requires that the self program be running.
Jared: Yeah. To a large degree. Yeah. And two to my point, it’s not like you stop being a human if you were in these altered States. And in some ways that you almost feel more human. It’s like this weird paradox of talk to people who have had heightened states, whether it’s psychedelic people or extreme athletes or something like that. And in one breath they’ll say, “Well, that’s when I feel the most like myself.” And then in enough breath they’ll say, “Well, there’s no self there. Everything’s just kind of happening. Nobody is in charge.” So it is this kind of strange paradox. I think-
Jim: Yeah, that’s kind of the flow self, right? Or flow. Now, the question is flow… To my mind, I mean, I’ve been in some crazy flow States on a few occasions. I could tell you some stories. The shit I did when I was in these states, it’s amazing. But I’d always felt like it was me. It was definitely not the same as 400 micrograms of LSD ego death. Right?
Jim: It was a best form of self basically. It would be my take on it [inaudible 00:59:28].
Jared: Yeah. It’s a strange one. And at the same point, if somebody were to slap a MRI scanner on you, I’m fairly confident to say that the aspects of your mind that are largely correlated with self confabulation would be very deregulated in those spaces. But really it’s… I like to think of these things, all of these kinds of conceptual overlays as being really valuable maps. There are approximations of how to navigate our territory and they’re super valuable because they simplify things. Because the world is fricking complex, man. Right? For a human, it’s infinite. There has to be some heuristics to create a smaller world where we actually could make decisions and not be completely overwhelmed and just [inaudible 01:00:19] look at the stars all day long, every day.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s again, in my own model of conscious cognition, that’s what consciousness is for. It actually turns out just to be a simple hack that chops through all the commatoric explosion of possibilities and forces a decision every 250 milliseconds, basically. And it’s not always right by any means. Right? Those of us who have lived the life, know we make mistakes each and every day, but not making a decision every 250 milliseconds, even if it’s only what to pay attention to next, you’re never going to succeed.
Jared: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, to continue this map metaphor, it’d be like the difference between going on a hike and basically stopping where you are pulling the map up to your head to try and figure out where you need to be going and holding it so close that you can no longer see what’s going on and then trying to walk. Right? So the trick here is to figure out how to hold it at a bit of a distance and compare and contrast because the real world is far more complex than this 2d map representation that we’ve come up with. We’re going to have to use all of our other senses, not just our sight and conceptual mind, but our feelings and if we hit a run into a rock, that should be a cue that, “Oh well, the rock’s not on the map, but it sure is in real life.”
Jared: So, you have to hold both of these things in cognition for there to be a good interaction. A lot of the ideas of self that we have, they continue to run, the colloquial phrases, they continue to run, the maps are still available, you just don’t believe them because we get so entranced with them that we forget that we’re actually on a hike. We’re just staring at the map all day long and that doesn’t get us very far.
Jim: I like that. It’s a very interesting metaphor and it gets to my next topic, which is I think very closely aligned, which is attention. In my own work I like to say that attention is the cursor of consciousness, that our consciousness is actually made from the changes in states of attention. That’s the clock of our consciousness and can happen probably no more frequently than 40 milliseconds, something like that and more often happens at about 250 milliseconds. When I think about some of the writings I’ve read, particularly Shinzen Young’s talk about concentration as being, he describes it as central to meditation.
Jim: He says, “Anything that does not improve your concentration is not meditation.” When I think of concentration, I think of some ability to manage attention. Your thoughts on the relationship between the Young’s idea of concentration and maybe the more cognitive science idea of attention.
Jared: This is fun because I spent a lot of time with Shinzen’s system called unified mindfulness and went through their teacher program and did a bunch of online classes. And so I’m very familiar with it and I love a lot of his… The maps that he comes up with that describe what we’re doing here with our minds. I actually, when I stopped doing the unified mindfulness thing, it was because I discovered another system by a guy named Culadasa who has a map called the mind… Came from a book called The Mind Illuminated, which is actually a very traditional old school Buddhism approach to the practice. But one of the heuristics is for how he thinks of attention, is he likes to break it up into two different qualities. So he basically says that optimal movement through our environment is the optimal interaction between attention and awareness.
Jared: I think he also, because he has a bit of a psychological and neuroscience background, I know that he’s made some correlations to brain locations that correlate with the awareness and attention. I couldn’t speak to it with any authority at this moment, but I could tell you what it feels like. And while these distinctions might be arbitrary and we could just say it’s kind of on one end of the spectrum we have attention, which is extremely hyper-focused, high detail. Another characteristic of our attention that is if there’s an intention to it, it feels like we’re putting our… It’s there for a reason. We put it there, there was an agent behind it.
Jared: And then on the other end of the spectrum we have this really broad low density peripheral element of our experience, which would be more aligned with awareness. And that one’s weird because it doesn’t feel like there’s much intention in bringing that quality of experience. But this is also extremely important because it puts whatever is an intention in a certain context. So, one of the classic examples that I love is just to think of looking at a stack of the Zen rocks on a beach and there’s very beautiful, provocative and if you were to see it right in front of you, you’d be staring at it and it’s in perfect clarity and without thinking about it you know immediately, I’m on a beach. If my attention is really stable, the periphery starts to expand a little bit and get a little bit more detailed, a little bit wider.
Jared: That can tell me about things that are competing for my attention. Somebody jogging next to me and I catch it in my periphery and it’s very subtle but just enough information to decide whether I want to go bring my attention over there or not. If we’re in either state in the sense where there’s only awareness, where it’s just this completely open broad thing and you’re going to do anything in that situation. Or if you’re in complete hyper tunnel focus, then you can be completely unaware of what’s happening around the edges. A classic example that everybody has is getting caught up by anger.
Jared: Yeah. We’re on the highway and somebody cuts us off and we flip them off. The anger is all of our experience and we aren’t seeing the periphery, the larger, “I’m on a highway, this is dangerous.” All of these other things to consider, and you can strengthen both of these elements. And then a lot of meditation is figuring out how to get them to work together. And you can’t sustain attention without being aware of what is going to be possibly distracting you so that you can deliberately make the choice to stay, keep attention with what you’ve chosen.
Jared: The other element here is the intention. There has to be an intention to maintain focus and there has to be an intention to maintain peripheral awareness. So yeah, that’s my favorite neuroscience, psychological, pop psychological description of moment-to-moment experience, especially in a contemplative perspective or frame.
Jim: So you would essentially describe a tension or actually you could adjust presumably these parameters between awareness and focus.
Jared: Yeah, very simply. Right? If you hold your hand up in front of your face right now, you can really dial in on that every tiny little detail and you’ll look the crack and the more you get engrossed with that, the more your periphery starts to dampen down. So the awareness becomes a little less, but you can loosen it a little bit and just be like, “Oh, I’m just going to look at the whole hand, keep it in attention. But all of a sudden I’m very… The periphery has become a lot more broad. I kind of understand the context of where the hand is, what it’s doing.” So yeah, we can play with both of these and you can build both of those in different ways using different practices as well.
Jim: Okay. Of course, in normal life, let’s say person who’s not doing these kinds of things, the brain is basically driving itself through a whole series of attention changes. I use attention in the cognitive science sense, typically a large amount of focus on one single object within the conscious frame. It could be a visual object, a sound object, or it could be an internal speech word. It could be a reading word and it basically hops about on average, no faster than once every quarter of a second, sometimes a bit faster.
Jim: We can concentrate our attention on a single object. But this is the interesting thing. The brain does not like that. The longer you concentrate on one object, the more it wants you to switch to something else. And after about five seconds, it really gets pretty hard to keep focused on one object because essentially the brain does not want to do that because it has “learned” to anthropomorphic there, through evolution it has been tuned such that changing attention, no more than once every five seconds is probably good in terms of being adaptive, i.e being able to survive to the point you’re having children.
Jared: Yeah. Well, and I think that this brings up a really interesting evolutionary argument in the perspective of if we’re looking at the 200,000 years of tribal life that led up to modern society, you can quickly see that life would be a lot slower and there would be a lot of deliberate tasks and not a lot of other things demanding our attention. So if I were to make a hypothesis here, I’d say that the amount of attention shifting in a tribal circumstance where you’re in nature, everything’s kind of moving at a similar pace, there’s not these clear distinctions, you’re completely… Whatever you need to be doing, it needs your full attention because you’ve got to be keeping your safety in mind and safety of your family and all this stuff. That environment I think is far more conducive to a more natural amount of attention and awareness and attentional shifting.
Jared: Now, we fast forward to today and we just are bombarded. Everything’s vying for our attention. With our social networks, our work environment, that’s loud and crazy and the TV shows they’re getting faster because people can’t pay even pay attention to them. It’s kind of a self amplifying mechanism here right now. And this is why I think that practice that leads to attention stability is becoming more and more important and like I said, you can maintain attention deliberately and use attention and awareness in any circumstance you want. It just so happens that sitting on a cushion is maybe like the power lifting variant, where it’s just like that’s all you’re doing. It’s very isolated, so it’s a good bang for your buck. But every moment, we’re kind of falling into habitual patterns of how we use our attention and awareness.
Jared: To your point, we’ve become so used to shifting our attention that it becomes very unnatural and uncomfortable, especially in the beginning to maintain it in one place. But here’s the rub too. If you spend some time doing concentrative practices, and these are probably the ones that take the most time and commitment, probably if you’re not doing an hour or two a day, you’re not going to get very far and it has to be every day, because you’ll lose progress. You’re not going to get very far in the concentration realm because life’s not very conducive to it. But the interesting thing is that once the mind starts to get settled and comfortable with being completely focused on one area, it actually is very pleasureful.
Jared: Depending on how distracted we are, some people have… Well, there’s a bunch of types of reactions to the concentrated mind that happen to arise, but they go actually in a predictable order too and it starts with a very ecstatic joy. So all of a sudden your mind is decided. It’s staying where it is and it’s not going anywhere. It can release these extreme bouts of joy. Your skin feels like it’s bursting, it’s hot, it’s vibrating or something like that. And then if that can stabilize, if you stay concentrated, you can move into a little bit more of a tranquil pleasant sensation.
Jared: If you stay with that a little bit, things start to get a little bit more… A little more subtle and it’s just kind of equanimity. Eventually you can get to the place, where you kind of bottom out in this just radical equanimity where everything is 100% perfect and there’s only a tiny thing. It’s the sensation of your breath or a location in your experience. And all that’s there and everything has been dampened out. So it’s actually… They can be very pleasureful. And a lot of people who do these practices get called. So these concentration practices often leading to these things called jhanas, these deep concentrative states. And it’s kind of a fun little anecdote that a lot of people will talk about how some people get so addicted to the pleasure that they call them jhana junkies where all they’re doing is sitting down, you’re getting high concentrated states and blissing out.
Jim: Yeah, it seems dangerous to me. As I wrote my essay, I’ve seen this. I’ve seen where people get pulled away from the work of the world and essentially become naval gazers. Right? There is such positive feedback and probably strong dopamine signals to do it again, right? That people who get involved with these things should realize that they’re like heroin. Heroin is very, very- They tell me at least I’ve smoked some opium a couple of times, never done heroin, but I have heard from people who have done it. That is like the best thing ever. Right? But you don’t want to be doing the best thing ever all the time, because there’s the work of the world. I mean, we’re in the world to do the work of the world, at least I would say. These other things are means to that end and we need to be careful that they don’t become ends rather than means.
Jared: Yeah. That when the rubber hits the road, it’s about being in the world and there is uncomfortable reality that in some senses sometimes people have to dedicate good portions of their life or time to pursuing these states in isolation, not interacting that deeply with the world, at least to kind of unravel their shit so that when they do engage in the world, they’re not so self and other harming, they’re not a hazard. The default human psychology I’d argue it’s kind of like a bull in the China shop. We’re causing a lot of damage. So yeah, you have to hold both of these in kind of the same hand. And that’s just one. The pleasure, getting attached to pleasure in your meditation practice, that’s one of a million cultus acts. There’s all sorts of spiritual bypassing that can people can fall trap to.
Jared: So I think it’s really important to talk about how in the end this is about being in the world affecting change, interacting with people. And there’s a Zen phrase that’s always fun and it says, “Before enlightenment you carry wood and get and gather water. And after enlightenment you carry wood and gather water.” Right? It’s like-
Jim: Yeah, I don’t mind that at all. Okay. So we’ve talked about a lot of the ways in which this is useful, right? And pleasurable. And now, and again, this is the area where I am still very resistant, I think Sam Harris is too. I’d like to hear what your view is. Are there any metaphysical truths to be found here in these contemplated practices? Or are they just the confabulator firing shit up as we go into non-typical brain rhythms and networks?
Jared: This is interesting. I do think it has a role. It’s just we can’t be fundamentalists about it in the sense that to be non-dual is to realize that we’re bodies and minds, right? To your point, this isn’t a Cartesian separation. They’re intimately intertwined, not separate whatsoever. And so if that holds true, then obviously there’s got to be some part of this contemplative project that has some real world implications when it comes to the metaphysical and philosophical underpinnings of what’s actually happening out there. Well, here’s an interesting thing. Right? So wisdom in a Buddhist context, it’s kind of like an enlightened quality in the sense like to act from wisdom is very renowned. And what wisdom is correlated to in the Buddhist teachings is actually something called emptiness.
Jared: So it’s nothingness, nothingness. And so I think the value here, and this makes some connections to the postmodern shift as well, is understanding in our experience, if we can get so intimately familiar with our confabulator that is making stories up and some of them are more or less true and resonate with the larger world, the more we start to see that if they’re all maps, none of the things that our mind can offer up are going to be ultimately true. They’re all simplifications of what’s actually happening. And that can be a terrifying perspective from an objective stance. Because you’re basically saying that all of our theories can’t ultimately be proven. And for a large degree, physics and science progresses under the auspices or the intention that maybe we can actually find out what the source code of the world is. We can boil it down, we can really understand it. But when we realize that it’s something that our mind is creating, it allows us to view it in a different way.
Jared: The cool thing about this here is that we can be flexible with our metaphysics in the sense that we can see that each of them can have a valuable perspective or lens to apply in different situations and we’re not really that worried about them disagreeing with each other. They become far more about how their utility and far less about their truth. Well, not far less about their truth, but understanding that there’s no ultimate answer that our tiny little brains can somehow grasp the totality of the universe using our weird arbitrary distinctions, even though they are extremely helpful.
Jared: The reason I brought up postmodernism, is because postmodernism is kind of very intellectual version of this deconstruction. It’s doing these really deep dives to try and understand the limitations of our stories. So yeah, I don’t know, maybe we could start there.
Jim: Yeah, that’s good. That’s a good place to start. First I would push back a little bit and say that real scientists don’t think that they’re anywhere close to real ground truth, right?
Jim: Especially the top scientists. They know that-
Jim: That everything we do is coarse grained, simplified, and certainly wrong in the details and perhaps wrong in big picture, right? It hasn’t been that long ago since, for instance, Einstein overturned Newtonism, right? Newtonian view of the world was so amazingly in grain and go back and read your Kant, right? You can’t imagine Kant without Newton. Right? And yet Einstein could turn that completely on its head and then the even more radical craziness of quantum mechanics, right?
Jim: So, as Richard Feynman says, if anyone says they understand quantum mechanics, they’re lying, right? Nobody understands quantum mechanics. And that’s okay. I would say the top scientist accept that. On the other hand, and I think this is part ways with the New Agers and I’m not sure with the Buddhists, I’m not sure which is, I would say there is a reality out there. And that science is incrementally and iteratively and sometimes wrongly learning more and more and more and more about that real universe that’s out there and that we can’t just make shit up about the universe.
Jim: That’s the difference between science and metaphysics. Metaphysics is the art of making shit up. Right? And in fact, when I say metaphysics, I hear the word metaphysics, I reach for my pistol. That’s about the kind of metaphysics, what I call metaphysical assertions, where people just assert things, right? Oh, that Yahweh is sitting in a cloud or Zeus is throwing lightning bolts or Thor causes thunder. It’s just shit somebody made up. And even Aristotelian physics was frankly something somebody made up, Aristotle in this case and it was just bullshit. He just made it up and that was easily disproved. Weirdly, it took 2000 years for somebody to do a half an hour experiment to disprove it because we clearly have a bias towards these metaphysical assertions.
Jim: And so I like to carefully piece apart that we have some things that we’re learning about the universe that while not exactly true are getting true and they are consistent and they’re lawful. That’s the important thing. At least they have so far. It’d be really interesting to prove they aren’t lawful. It should be interesting. But so far we found them to be extremely lawful. The laws of quantum mechanics seemed to be correct to 14 decimal points, which is pretty amazing.
Jim: And while the area of metaphysics, people just make shit up all the time. The anthropologists have found at least 10,000 religions, for instance, all of which at the level of metaphysics contradict each other. Interesting. Right? And so when I run to someone with a religious dogma, I say, “At best, your probability of being correct is one in 10,000.” And they go, “Ah.” They can’t get that right. I mean, the people watching the Aztec priests cut the hearts out of teenagers, hold the hearts up, the beating hearts up, and then throwing the carcasses down the stairs so the lower priests could eat them. They all thought that was great. That was the good shit. And the true and straight narrow way, their reality, right?
Jim: So we can believe all kinds of horseshit. Right? And so that’s why I think it’s hugely important to draw this bright line between metaphysical speculations, which are unbound and science-like, and some of its friends, math and logic, though they are different because those are both formal systems rather than empirical systems. Right? And don’t get too confused. I’m going to give you two examples. Just let me get your reaction to one. I won’t point at the serious meditative contemplate of practice people, but the New Age versions of some come back amazingly often with what they call… They merged with the universal consciousness, right? I go, “Where’s the evidence for this universal consciousness? What does it told you that you wouldn’t know otherwise?” Right? So far I’ve never seen a single proof that there is a universal consciousness, but millions of people will claim that there are.
Jim: The other one is from the fairly rigorous, not as rigorous as we’d like, DMT drug studies, right? Where amazingly often people come back with these similar stories, a little green man and strange doings and some other dimension. And again, all right, sounds like horseshit to me. And yet these are the kinds of things that we see coming repeatedly out of these kinds of atypical mental experiences.
Jared: Let me make a quick caveat too, because you mentioned that I can give the Buddhist perspective here. If there are any Buddhists listening, there’s a good chance that I’m saying some things that are very wrong or radical and there’s a million variants of Buddhism. So I’m definitely not a spokesman and I actually would call myself just kind of Buddhish. I’ve learned a lot about it but never taken vows or been part of a [inaudible 01:22:47] or anything like that. So a bit of a visitor to this space, but yeah, I do enjoy it’s philosophy a lot. That being said, I think we’re pointing to the same thing that we talked about in the beginning, right? Is that subjective experience and objective experience are two lenses to view our world. And while they are connected, they’re not completely separate.
Jared: They influence each other on a regular basis. If we get too over invested in one of them, it excludes the other. What I’m basically saying is that we should be non-dual in our subject object distinctions. And if you don’t know enough about science and rational understanding, then you’ll make the mistake of thinking that the experiences that you’re having are ultimately true. But I also think that the fascinating thing here is that when you view these from a highly developed rational understanding, you get a bit of a metaphysics and that metaphysics is uncertainty, right? So the reason I said wisdom was empty is because in this distinction, wisdom is knowing that we know nothing. And when we do that, it frees us up to explore anywhere.
Jared: To your point, it frees us up to constantly be refining, adjusting, updating, comparing our maps. So we become the intellectual pursuit, trying to understand our experience in some profound way is one sense just a grandiose form of cartography. We’re really interested in trying to figure out approximations that are useful to us in everyday life, but the moment that we become fundamentalists and think that one of these areas is true and the other isn’t, we limit ourselves to half of large element of our experience.
Jared: The weird thing too is that if we can look at these subjective frames that might sound like they’re making metaphysical claims, as purely ways of describing subjective states and not being predictive completely of objective ones, it becomes more useful. But I think emptiness or nothingness in the sense that if everything is moving and everything is connected and interacting with each other, any distinction that we make is going to be inherently false. It’ll be wrong the moment we draw it because the experience is always changing, things are always changing. And maybe we could talk about the scientific implications of this.
Jared: Or are we saying that some of the fundamental laws of physics might be influx? I don’t know. But I would say I’ve never had an experience that wasn’t impermanent, so it would follow suit that maybe we could use that as a lens for a certain exploration of objective science and maybe we could learn something there. So yeah, it’s this strange polarity of being able to hold both of them in hand and navigate fluidly between the two depending on when it’s most useful.
Jim: And useful is key. I mean, it’s my favorite word. I know you’ve probably heard me say it a zillion times as you’ve edited the podcast, right? And is it actually useful? Whether the concept of being at one with the universal consciousness or having a conversation with little green men on a blue crystal world is actually useful, I’m not so sure. But I do know that understanding quantum mechanics is how we build the disc drives that we have and we use general relativity and the design of GPS systems and how we send satellites on long orbits, et cetera. So I know those things are useful.
Jim: So I would suggest that use usefulness as a lens in general. And I also came, just while we were talking, listening to you talk, came up with a little bit of a interesting take on some of these metaphysical assertions, is maybe we should think of our metaphysical assertions as the most recent book review on the most recent book written by the confabulator.
Jared: Yes. I love that.
Jim: I think we should wrap it up right there. This was a great conversation. I have another page of notes, but I think we did a great job. Thank you very much, Jared.
Jared: Yeah, thank you. This was a blast. I’m glad we can make some time to, to dig deep into these contemplative waters.
Jim: Yeah. I don’t know if we’ve just confused the hell out of each other or actually as usual, I think I made a little progress here every time I talked to somebody about this, I feel like I understand it a little bit better.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mueller at modernspacemusic.com.