The sun is crawling its way above the horizon behind me as I wait in a queue with about a dozen other people. We assemble in front of a shipping container advertising Soup Flavored Blankets. Nothing but desert surrounds us for hundreds of meters. It looks like they’re giving out soup, and my associate and I are quite hungry after the previous night’s festivities. Blasting from behind the soup box, on comes an untidy man haphazardly steering a bicycle with one hand. Singing an unrecognizable song in a hoarse voice, his eyes wandering about in their sockets. He carries a 30-pack of Tecate beer in his lap. “Come get a beer!” he shouts at us. The people in line interrupt their conversations and shift around a bit nervously. Even for Burning Man, the guy seems a little messed up. Awkwardness indeed, but I’ve been trying to practice dealing with these very situations. “Excellent!”, I run over to him. “How about a hug?” he asks. I hesitate for a moment and oblige. He’s quite intoxicated and needs a hand with getting his jacket off, and assistance pulling out his giant foam honey bee wings that are tucked under his sweatshirt. But of course, I will help… “I also have some homemade jerky and honey” [surely made out of mescaline], which he immediately pulls out of a backpack, “and you will try some!” Everyone is staring at us a bit nervously at this point, and so I must dig right in. “My name is Bee Chaser” he declares, before sitting down on a rock and starting back into his indecipherable verse.
Three weeks later I’m sitting very, very still. My eyes are closed, and my legs are crossed, in a room with about 40 others. We have been doing a lot of this — 12 hours a day for the past week. My attention is on my right thigh. Deep inside of it, I feel what must be a ball of knives, about 3 inches in diameter, burning with the heat of the sun. Saying it hurts is an understatement — this is one of the most painful sensations I’ve ever felt, and yet it doesn’t bother me as much as I expect. I know that if I uncross my legs the pain will immediately disappear. But, from experience, I also know that if I don’t uncross my legs the pain will eventually disappear. A few seconds later, although it feels like an hour, a bright white spot appears within the center of my closed-eye visual field. It grows from a small dot to quickly encompass the blackness. The pain climaxes and then begins to disintegrate into the sensation of lightning shooting throughout my body. I am overwhelmed with warmth and drowsiness.
The typical Burning Man encounter — a meeting with Bee Chaser — illustrates the inherent choice available to embrace or avoid feelings of discomfort, anxiety or uncertainty. Similarly, an intense experience with pain at a meditation retreat highlights the primary role of our expectations and interpretations in defining how we experience reality — even the most intense physical pain. By pushing ourselves to experience these kinds of situations and practicing our responses to them, we can learn to appreciate the full range of experiences life has to offer: pleasure, pain, ambiguity, inevitability, and much more.
There are two widely adopted, and largely self-sabotaging, approaches to making sense of life’s experiences. Most people attempt to fixate meaning with a permanently stable and coherent grand narrative. Unfortunately, this is accomplished by ignoring the bits that don’t quite fit together. David Chapman refers to this stance as eternalism and it is commonly associated with religions and political ideologies. The diametrically opposed approach is to take the perspective of materialism (or physicalism) and view the world as uniformly, objectively devoid of meaning. This is typically referred to as nihilism. Both of these stances are probably wrong or confused. Meaning seems to be something that we can actively create, observe and lose. We experience it coming and going, and specific to the details of any given situation.
I think of our perception of reality as a kind of constantly evolving multi-dimensional alphabet soup that we are observing, swimming through, and interacting with. At any given time, we can find some pattern or another that strikes our fancy. Sometimes we squint and let our minds fill in the gaps since everything is moving around and a bit nebulous. Some patterns will last longer than others, depending on how quickly the soup is being stirred, but inevitably the letters will shift and patterns will dissolve into the noise of the background. In this metaphor, eternalism implies the tendency to fixate on and grow attached to patterns found in the letters. We may develop a single, all-encompassing theory that explains the soup and its messages. Soup behavior that does not fit our framework may be ignored, or interpreted in a way to make it fit. Alternatively, with enough cogitation we can realize that this is just the random shifting of graphemic pasta in liquid, how can it possibly mean anything? It must all be random and empty — nihilism.
Even if we intellectually deny eternalism and nihilism, it is inevitable to struggle with the inherent instability of pattern. Our brains are tuned to detect pattern,. We have a tendency to cling to structure and predictability. Being able to rely on the stability of the familiar gives us a sense of security, whereas change and ambiguity can trigger anxiety and fear of loss. This bias towards seeking stability in pattern, structure, and form is a powerful motivator for action. It drives the creation of, and attachment to, expectations and cravings for pattern to persist or be recreated.
Often our attachment to pattern comes in the form of pleasurable physical sensation. When they first taste ice cream, many babies react with mild skepticism and confusion, which then quickly transforms to utter delight. Thirty years later, the ice cream enthusiast may continue to chase the pleasures he remembers to be encapsulated within the cold creamy treat. At best he will be satisfied for a brief period, and at worst he may experience disappointment and frustration when the ice cream fails to materialize (god forbid the ice cream store is closed when they arrive), or it is not to his expectations.
As we grow up, we start to substitute our attachment to physical pattern with more complex, indirect (instrumental) mental structures. At some point, many of us realize that rather than worrying about the day-to-day acquisition of ice cream, feelings of belonging, and sex, we can scale up our ambitions with bigger, longer-term goals — often the acquisition of money and power — which in practice are mostly just useful for experiencing lots of ice cream, feelings of belonging, and sex in the future. As a result, individuals amass fortunes, raise armies, build monuments, and create machines to help extend our reach beyond our planet. Setting a big goal and striving towards it actively creates structure for our minds to operate with — meaning, purpose, and reality made legible. At least, until the goal is achieved (or we fail), the form dissolves, and we are left with uncertainty, disappointment or even suffering.
Inevitably, we develop attachments to experiences we seem to naturally enjoy, and aversions towards experiences that are not so nice. So what? One response is that this isn’t a problem to be solved but rather an integral component of what it means to experience life. We should set expectations, strive for things, and occasionally sit in disappointment, flail in anxiety and wallow in suffering. This seems like a perfectly valid approach to life, but not one I’m particularly interested in. As someone with a relatively high emotional setpoint (I am almost always pretty satisfied) –I very rarely experience anxiety and have never suffered to any memorable degree — these are things I would prefer to not experience given that I have the choice. Indeed, there is a choice to be made here: to suffer or not to suffer, and how to avoid it.
Buddhism offers at least two distinct paths for solving suffering. Both function by giving us techniques to build intuition for the impermanence of all experience, amongst other insights. Sutrayana, the renunciative path, solves the problem of suffering by teaching us how to stop experiencing craving and aversion. It shows us that all expectations inevitably lead to disappointment given that all experience is impermanent. Even when things go our way, it is only a matter of time before our luck runs out. This leads to the realization that one stable solution is asceticism: withdraw from the ups and downs of experience, snuff out aversion and desire, and eventually all feeling starts to take on the same character of satisfied indifference. Stop chasing the momentary structure that forms in the soup, for it is in constant flux and it is no better than any old mishmash of letters. This works but is kind of a bummer. Tantrayana, the transformative path, offers a slightly different take. Rather than seeking to silence the passions and experiences of life, it helps us develop our capacity to transform experiences of negative or neutral valence into positive ones. It suggests that we can learn to enjoy failure, anxiety, and ambiguity in the same way that we naturally enjoy success, stability, and clarity. Delight in occasions when the letters in the soup line up and spell something interesting but also learn to appreciate the movement and confusion of the swirling chaos, the moments in between the clarity.
To be clear, this is not a matter of religion or spirituality. Buddhism is a good case study because it lays out a relatively straightforward and established process (that works for many people!) for changing how one’s mind functions. In a nutshell, these are ways of living and have been on offer with varying degrees of clarity, along with many other solutions, from wise folk for all of recorded history. However, Buddhism is one of the few (Stoicism does this to some extent as well, among others) that offers practical solutions to a problem often overlooked in other schools of thought: the sharp distinction between knowing how and knowing that. It is one thing to tell us how to behave. The hard part is actually modifying our behavior and ways of thinking — meditation is a tool for doing so. This can be roughly mapped onto the Kahneman/Tversky framework of System 1 (S1) vs System 2 (S2) thinking where knowing how becomes S1 — intuition, emotion, reaction and subconscious belief — and knowing that becomes S2 — reason, cogitation, and conscious belief. It appears that in order to experience the benefits of being comfortable with nebulosity (uncertainty, instability, ambiguity, change, etc.) we must acquire S1 knowledge of impermanence, and an S1 desire to experience the typically-defined negative emotions as well as the positive.
Reading the words above enables one to know that (S2). You may come to agree with them, but this doesn’t bring you meaningfully closer to realizing the changes suggested. Reading words and grappling with ideas won’t help you to actually feel that all experience is impermanent, and react in ways in accordance with this belief. Perhaps this is what is going on with experts in ethics not behaving any more ethically than the average person. You must have many experiences,reflect on their impermanence and your will to choose how you react, and over time develop the knowledge intuitively. Buddhism offers the tools of Vipassana — insight meditation — to develop the knowledge required to make progress. For example, in body scanning meditation we get dozens of opportunities per hour to observe the arising and passing of physical sensations (both pleasant and unpleasant) on our bodies. By paying close attention to these sensations, we are also able to witness them transform and disintegrate, e.g. pain may decompose into pressure and heat, then move around a bit and disappear. Some of these experiences will be quite profound, and after enough of them, we start to notice our reactions to and intuitions about physical reality changing. This is not about stopping and thinking about how to ideally act or react (S2), but the way our minds behave when left to their own devices — the mind of emotion and intuition (S1).
We can understand a silent meditation retreat — an approximation of monastic life — as an intensive period of S1 training for our minds. We pause the quotidian matters of life in order to train our ability to react to them. Meditative practice is often designed to eliminate thought (S2) and focus the attention on experience, over time developing subconscious intuitions (S1) about reality. The concentrated period of practice ends up leading to superlinear learning due to increased focus and a higher concentration of examples to learn from. A week of intensive meditation can result in progress that would otherwise take months or years of daily sittings.
The same lens can be applied to the Burning Man (BM) experience. BM creates an environment where one is encouraged to disconnect from the familiar patterns of everyday life and be pulled into a chaotic flow of intense and ephemeral experience — from the pleasurable and serene to the overwhelming and uncomfortable. In meditation, it is easy to “meditate” and just sit there thinking, remembering and fantasizing. Similarly, one can experience BM on “easy mode”: spend time with your friends, go to a concert by a big-name DJ, or get drunk at the bar. But if you push yourself you have the opportunity to do the kind of S1 learning facilitated by a meditation retreat. By paying the right kind of attention to its brief and strange encounters we can come to better feel the ephemerality of our realities. We can push ourselves to sit and appreciate the moments of uncertainty and confusion or to find delight in the initial discomforts of some interactions we are invited into. A week dedicated to transforming our initial negative responses to these intense moments can lead to (S1) learning that would normally take months or years. However, until we take the stance that every moment can be viewed as a chance to learn how to react with positivity and delight, and put in the effort to do so, nothing fundamental will change.