My introspection practice

Lately, I’ve had a handful of people ask me about my meditation and introspection practices. This has served as a nice jumping off point to think back on my progress and results, as well.

The core of my efforts has been meditation — starting with concentration/samadhi practices and now mostly focusing on insight/vipassana practices. I started messing around with it about 7 years ago as a 10-minute daily practice following a New Year’s Resolution (wow, sometimes they do work!). It was a sufficiently low hurdle that I was able to keep that up very consistently but about 2 years ago I reflected and noticed not much was changing — this made me curious. I started digging into the literature — everything from esoteric Buddhist texts introducing annapanna to Ingram introducing noting — which led me to the conclusion that 1) I would need to put in more effort if I wanted to see more interesting results and 2) sitting around with my eyes closed and my mind wandering half the time doesn’t do much good. I started ramping up to 30 minutes a day and then eventually 60 minutes a day, and gradually things began to feel very different. I would experience weird stuff. I started noticing changes in my day-to-day experience of reality as I walked around and did things.

Eventually, through the recommendation of a friend who was quite a bit more experienced than me, I explored further in technique-space. Shinzen Young’s See Hear Feel had better “handles” for me to grab onto than Ingram’s noting practice and this led to some nice immediate progress. I was also tipped off to Culadasa’s book before it was released and dove into it immediately. This was the best text I have encountered in terms of step-by-step help to go from 0 to enlightenment, without fluff or esotericism or the overwhelming intensity of Ingram. I also did a 10 day Goenka retreat which, while giving off a bit of a culty vibe, was an overall awesome experience and led to huge progress in my practice — I also went from practically no knowledge to being quite proficient in his body scanning practice.

I’ve continued a daily practice which is currently at around 30-90 minutes a day in a single morning sit and occasionally has peaked around 2 hours a day. Since the Goenka retreat I’ve also put a lot more emphasis into trying to maintain mindfulness constantly while going through my day — mostly doing See Hear Feel. Currently, I rotate through a mix of Culadasa breathing, Young’s See Hear Feel, Goenka body scanning, and then I usually finish my sits with compassion Metta and/or Tonglen.

After meditating, I will spend 5-10 minutes journaling. This practice has changed a lot over time, including anything from writing a summary of my previous day to answering various sets of journaling questions/prompts. Over time, this began to feel aversive and “like work”, so recently I have switched to something more unstructured: focusing on strong feelings that bubble up in the moment or upon reflecting on the last and upcoming day, looking for what feels alive/exciting and what feels dead/aversive. I’ve also started spending about 10-20 minutes right after journaling to practice using Gendlin’s Focusing technique (get the audio book, it’s 60 minutes and all you need!) to decompose some problem or anxiety that I am able to identify and thereby gain incremental insight. I’ve been using some variation of Focusing sporadically for years, but starting to deliberately practice it daily has gotten me to naturally turn to it far more often throughout the day.

In terms of actual changes to my experience from all this stuff, well, it’s kind of hard to explain. I think the meditation has had large phenomenological effects. The world feels brighter, my body is constantly buzzing with energy, I can quickly and precisely identify feelings, emotions, moods and dissect them into parts. I can experience a lot of pain without it really bothering me all that much. My feelings and emotions are objects that arise, that I can interact with and use if I want them to, and that disappear when I don’t need them anymore (for the most part). This is starting to happen more consistently with my thoughts, as well. When navigating through the world, I’m able to see in finer grain detail the frame-by-frame patterns of stimulus and response that I’m carrying out, and more and more I am able to intervene and change patterns in precise spots. I am certainly not perfect, as you know, although these powers are growing over time and feel a bit magical.

My introspection practice has also gone a long way in helping me transition from Robert Kegan’s adult development framework stage 4 to being most of the way to stage 5. Starting/running a business and managing people was huge for this, as well as studying morality and ethics in the abstract as well as for concrete issues, but I don’t think it would have happened very easily without the concentration and clarity that have developed for me from meditation, or the personal gaps/oversights that journaling and general introspection practices can identify. I feel like my identity has mostly dissolved and this has left me feeling airy, fast, and powerful. I see the potential for growth everywhere. I see the tremendous value that comes from adopting many ways of seeing and can flit between them more fluidly.

Ways of Seeing

Tough problems often feel insurmountable without more information and better models — more data and thinking. An alternative approach is to be able to see the problem, and the whole world, in a new way. By looking through different eyes, different aspects of the world get highlighted and new actions become visible. An entrepreneur sees the world differently. They notice opportunities for improvement and innovation where someone else only sees stress and pain. Similarly, while a typical person enters a living room and sees the couches and artwork on the walls, a parent of a young child perceives a menagerie of death traps. We are doing this in our own ways all of the time and this defines our experience — our reality.

Several ways of seeing come pre-installed for us — drives to obtain food, sex, safety, and socialization — as a result of our mind rewarding itself for continued survival and gene propagation. These powerful recurring waves of hallucination affect us to the core: how we see and how we experience. The world takes on a different character when we are hungry in contrast to when we are cold and wet. We develop new ways of seeing as we are exposed to more complex patterns: being unemployed or playing a game of chess. At times, we glimpse perspectives of overwhelming curiosity and open-mindedness — fertile soil for our capacity for reason. Unfortunately, we often overestimate this capacity, causing us to fool ourselves and others, and get stuck in the same old ways of thinking and perceiving.

The way we experience and how we look are two sides of the same coin. A way of seeing guides our attention in the service of some purpose, which highlights some parts of experience at the expense of others. The purpose is perhaps not a cause but rather a justification: a way that we understand, or talk about, the behaviors we undertake. One can imagine that if the earth was a conscious thing, it may understand one of its purposes — one of its ways of seeing — as life creation. The way we see also seems to define which actions appear available to us — which levers are pullable. When we feel stuck, it is useful to explore alternative ways of seeing. The way you perceive the world may be limiting your ability to find a solution, so try other ways of looking. Certain questions can act as attentional portals into ways of seeing which immediately reveal insight and new potential actions. Similarly, approaching the particular and peculiar with curiosity has a tendency of generating new thoughts.

Do we really have multiple ways of seeing and in what sense can we more fully inhabit ones beyond the primordial set? Which interesting ways of seeing have we forgotten?

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Certain Questions

About a year ago I was sitting around trying to grok the concept of Evil — where does it come from and how does it work? After a few hours of spinning in circles, I experienced a sudden shift. My mind conjured up the question: “Is this a thing out in the world or just a projection?” (Map vs Territory). Immediately, a part of my mind replied with “Well, this may not be anything other than a story we tell about the behavior of people we dislike”. Let’s ignore the truth value for today and notice the process. I’m interested in this mechanism of how a simple query — checking if I’m looking at a confusion of map with the territory — was able to instantly reframe a problem in a way that allowed me to effortlessly make a mental leap. What’s fascinating is that you don’t even need someone else’s brain to come up with these questions (although that often helps) — you can try to explain your problem to a rubber duck which creates a conversation with yourself and generates queries, or just go through a list of things to ask yourself when stuck.

There are a few different categories of these types of queries and many examples of each. For instance, when thinking about plans we can ask ourselves to perform prehindsight/inner simulator or reference class forecasting/outside view. When introspecting on our own behavior, we can perform sentence completion to check for limiting beliefs, ask questions like “Why aren’t I done yet?” or “What can I do to 10x my results?”. When thinking about problems or situations, we can ask ourselves to invert, reframe into something falsifiable, and taboo your words or perform paradjitsu. Or consider the miracle question: Imagine you wake up and the problem is entirely solved — what do you see, as concretely as possible, such that you know this is true?

So “we know more than we can tell” — somewhere in our head often lies the answer, if only we could get to it. In some sense, parts of our brain are not speaking to each other (do they even share the same ontologies?) except through our language processor, and only then if the sentences are constructed in specific ways. This may make you feel relieved if you think you can rely on your subconscious processing — which may have access to this knowledge — to guide you to effective action, or terrified if you need to use conscious reasoning to think through a chain of consequences.

My thoughts on Evil have continued to evolve since that initial revelation, partially driven by trying new queries on the concept (and partially from finally reading Nietzsche). Once you have a set of tools to throw at problems, the bottleneck to clearer thinking becomes remembering to apply them and actually having the time to do so. This makes me wonder about people that have formed habits to automatically apply a litany of these mental moves whenever approaching a problem — how much of their effectiveness and intelligence can this explain?