Meditation insights: suffering is intrinsically bound together with pleasure

A principle which I’ve been gradually been able to observe and internalize, thanks both to meditation and some other mind-hacking practices, is that suffering is never about the pain itself. There are conditions in which people report pain but do not mind it; pain is just an attention signal. Pain does not intrinsically cause suffering: what causes suffering is experiencing the pain, and desiring the relief that would come from the pain ceasing. One does not wish the pain to end, as such; one wishes to feel the pleasure that would come from the pain ending.

This may sound like a pure semantic distinction. It is not: it is a distinction with enormous practical value.

Some time back, Juha lent me his copy of The Mind Illuminated, a book on meditation. This is the best book on meditation that I have ever read. Among other practical instructions, it was the first time that a text really properly explained what the concrete goal of mindfulness practices are.

The goal (or at least a goal) of mindfulness is to train the mental processes responsible for maintaining your peripheral awareness – your background sense of everything that is going on around you, but which is not in the focus of your active attention – to observe not only your physical surroundings, but also the processes going on in your mind. By doing so, the mental processes responsible for habit formation start to get more information about what kinds of thought patterns produce pleasure and which kinds of thought patterns produce suffering. Over time this will start reshaping your mind, as patterns which only produce suffering will get dropped.

And part of the reason why this happens, is that you will start seeing thoughts with false promises of pleasure as what they are; rather than chasing promises of short-term pleasure, you will shift to sustainable thought patterns that produce long-term pleasure.

Suppose that you are meditating, and trying to maintain a focus on your breath. Over time this may start to feel boring. A pleasant-feeling thought will arise, tempting you to get distracted with its promise of relief from the boredom. But if you do get distracted sufficiently many times, and pay attention to how you feel afterwards, you will notice that this didn’t actually make you feel very good. Your concentration is in shambles and chasing random thoughts has just made you feel scatter-brained.

So the next time when that particular distraction arises, it may be slightly less tempting. And you begin to notice that it does feel good when you succeed at maintaining your concentration and ignoring the distractions. You had been suffering because your mind had been offering promises of pleasure which you felt you had to reject, but eventually you begin to internalize it’s not a choice of pleasure versus concentration at all. Concentration is only boring, or otherwise unpleasant, if you buy into the illusion of needing to chase the pleasant thought in order to feel good. If the false promise of pleasure stops tempting you, then the suffering of not having that pleasure goes away.

The tempting, pleasant thought is kind of like a marketer who first makes you feel inadequate about something, and then offers to sell you a product that will make you feel better. Your problem was never the lack of product; your problem was the person who made you think you can only feel good once you have his product.

Over time you learn to transfer this to your everyday life, paying attention to tempting thought-patterns that cause you suffering there. You experience different kinds of suffering, and feel that this could be fixed, if only you had X. Maybe you are procrastinating on something, and you get distracted by the idea of playing video games instead. Your mind tells you that if you just played video games, they would feel so good, and that pleasure would take away the pain of procrastination.

But if you do start to play the game, you may eventually notice that the promised pleasure never really manifested. Procrastination didn’t make you feel good, it just made you feel more miserable. And it’s one thing to know this on an intellectual level, in the way that most of us know intellectually that we’re going to regret procrastinating later; it’s quite another to actually internalize that belief in such a way that you recognize the temptation itself as harmful, and your mind begins learning to just ignore the temptation, until it never arises in the first place.

And the same principle applies more widely. Social anxiety, frustration over having to participate in an event you wouldn’t actually want to participate in, regrets over past mistakes: all are fundamentally about clinging to a thought which promises to offer pleasure, if only you (weren’t around these people/could skip the event/could change what had happened in the past). It is when you internalize that thinking about this isn’t actually going to deliver the pleasure and is actually causing you suffering, that reframe of the thought makes it easier to just automatically let go of it, with no need to struggle or expend willpower.

Books that have had the biggest impact on my life/thought

In roughly chronological order:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings
2. Eliezer Yudkowsky: The Less Wrong Sequences
3. Michele Boldrin & David K. Levine: Against Intellectual Monopoly
4. Olivia Fox Cabane: The Charisma Myth
5. Marshall Rosenberg: Non-Violent Communication
6. Eugene Gendlin: Focusing; Connirae Andreas & Tamara Andreas: Core Transformation

Tolkien, because he got me really into fantasy.

The Sequences woke me from a certain super-postmodern thought, where I basically felt that I could believe in anything as long as I came up with a sufficiently clever argument for it. They made me realize that there are actual mathematical laws regarding the kind of evidence I must have witnessed in order to start believing in something, if I wish to have correct beliefs. Also convinced me about AI being the biggest thing in the history of humanity, and got me on the career path that I’m still on.

Against Intellectual Monopoly bolted me from a very strong, principled “all online piracy is wrong” mindset to one where I later ended up as one of the founding members of the Finnish Pirate Party. It was also my first introduction to pro-market thinking and theories, with me having grown up in a climate that was very left economically.

The Charisma Myth got me to realize that one can be charismatic without being extroverted, and that being charismatic doesn’t necessarily mean saying interesting things all the time. It made me understand that just being present and paying genuine attention to the other person were things that could already give you considerable charisma, and furthermore these were some skills that I already possessed. It meant the start of my conversations with people going from the constant question of “oh now what do I say next?!?” to actually being present in the moment and not worrying so much.

Non-Violent Communication started me on the path where I can actually usefully work with the underlying needs and beliefs behind my emotional reactions, instead of treating them as atomic reactions that I can do very little about.

I’m bunching Focusing and Core Transformation together, as I think of them as two books that discuss variants of what’s fundamentally the same technique. I’ve found the Core Transformation version of it really powerful during some of the last few months, on the order of taking maybe half an hour to permanently cure psychological issues that had plagued me for decades. That said, I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to properly use the technique had I not first read Focusing and practiced with the instructions there.

Honorable mentions:

* David Friedman: The Machinery of Freedom. The book which further shook my very leftist thought, and got me to realize that libertarians also have some pretty damn compelling arguments, and that I’m not really qualified to say who’s right. Decided that I’d avoid taking any strong positions on economics from now, given how complicated the whole thing is. (have had varying levels of success with this decision)

* Pema Chödrön: The Wisdom of No Escape: How to love yourself and your world. Only read this book in the beginning of this year, but it has been very powerful in changing my thought and putting me on a path of greater self-compassion and self-acceptance.

* John Yates & Matthew Immergut & Jeremy Graves: The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. The best book on meditation that I’ve ever read. This is also something I started reading *very* recently (many thanks, Juha!), but I’m already provisionally ready to nominate it for an honorable mention, because it’s meditation instructions have been super-useful. They’ve helped install an automatic habit of my mind automatically dropping any lines of thought that will only be harmful (e.g. worrying about things that I have no control over); time will show whether that habit will last.

Cognitive Core Systems explaining intuitions behind belief in souls, free will, and creation myths

A book I’m currently reading, Cognitive Pluralism, cites research suggesting that human infants as well as many non-human animals (particularly primates) are born with four “hard-coded” core reasoning systems:

  • A Core Object System which identifies cohesive and continuous objects (as opposed to say liquids or heaps), enables tracking of such objects, and causes us to expect that objects will follow some specific properties: they will preserve their boundaries, move as a unit, interact with one another only through contact, and be set into motion only when acted on through direct contact. Has some signature limitations, such that we can only attend to about 3-4 objects at the same time.
  • A Core Number System which allows for numerical comparisons, such as by saying that a set with thirty stimuli is larger than a set with ten. Unlike the core object system, the core number system is nonmodal and not limited to contiguous objects; it can compare the number of e.g. sounds or actions.
  • A Core Agency System that causes us to intuitively treat humans, animals, and other things exhibiting signs of agency as being different from objects, liquids, or heaps. Things that are classified as agents are expected to exhibit autonomous, goal-directed behavior; and they will activate social behavior, such as when an infant imitates their actions.
  • A Core Geometric System which represents space and environment according to geometric properties such as distance and angle, while ignoring non-geometric properties such as color and smell. Does things such as constructing perspective-invariant representations of geometric layouts, or predicting how objects will appear when turned around or look at from a different perspective.

Now one particularly intriguing hypothesis which the book mentioned was that the intuitive human belief in souls or consciousness continuing after death, may come from the Agent and Object systems having different classification criteria. In particular, objects are assumed to only move when acted upon, while agents are assumed to exhibit independent, goal-directed motion.

Apparently the psychologist Paul Bloom has proposed that seeing or thinking about a human causes us to perceive there being two entities in the same space: a body (object) and a soul (agent). While the book did not explicitly mention this, this would also explain the origin of many intuitions about free will and mind-body dualism. Under this model, the object system would classify the body as something that only moves when being ordered to by an external force, requiring an agent in the form of a mind/soul being the “unmoved mover” that initiates the movement. One could also speculate on this being the intuition that motivated Aristotle’s unmoved movers in the celestial spheres, to say nothing about all the different creation myths, if we have an inborn intuition for movement requiring an agent to set it going.

Also, as a fun implication: if you were to design an AI to have the same core reasoning systems, then it might also have an intuitive belief in free will, souls, and creators.

Further reading: Cognitive Pluralism cites Spelke & Kinzler (2007), Core Knowledge, in Developmental Science 10:1, as well as Paul Bloom’s 2004 book Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, which based on its title sounds absolutely fascinating and which I probably want to read soon.

Relationship compatibility as patterns of emotional associations

Much of relationship compatibility comes down to a fuzzy concept that’s variously referred to as “chemistry”, “clicking”, or just feeling good and comfortable in the other’s presence. This is infamously difficult to predict by any other means than actually spending time around the other. OKCupid-style dating sites, with their extensive batteries of questions about values and preferences, are good at predicting a match in values and preferences but almost useless at predicting this kind of compatibility.

What I think is largely going on is that it’s about compatible patterns of emotional association. Each of us has deep in them various patterns of emotional associations that are hard to predict by an outsider because they seem to follow little “sensible” logic: rather they are formed by a combination of a person’s life experiences and their inborn temperament. Somebody fears abandonment and will freak out whenever they hear an expression that their parent used when angry; for another person that very same expression was used as one of affection, and has the opposite meaning. (Or the same expression might be associated with both fighting an affection: there’s a possibly apocryphal tale about a couple who made sure that whenever they’d been fighting so that their children had witnessed it, they’d make sure to call each other “love” and “dear” to let the children know that they still cared about each other. This lasted until the day that their kids came running to them, complaining that “He called me ‘love’!” “She started it, she called me ‘dear’!”…)

These are relatively superficial examples: typically the patterns go deeper and subtler. In retrospect, I’ve noticed that some of the people with whom I’ve had mutual attraction have exhibited sub-clinical signs of something like avoidant personality disorder, and I feel like exhibiting sub-clinical signs of AvPD has also been the case for myself. There have been few obvious signs of this at the time, but whatever those subtle signs were, some intuitive part of each of us picked up on them, thought this person is like me, and felt attracted without the rest of our minds knowing more than I feel good around this person.

Many failed relationships can be explained as a pattern of emotional compatibility that was a match in one situation (such as when you were going out on dates) but a mismatch in another (such as when you tried living together). Sometimes exactly the same traits cause opposite emotional reactions in different situations. Someone who is hard-working and has lots of impressive achievements can feel like a very appealing partner when you’re just getting to know each other, but feel much less desirable when you realize that they will never have much time for you and that their work will always come first.

The discouraging implication – for those of us who are single or otherwise looking – is that even if you manage to hit off on a date, that’s no guarantee of long-term compatibility. The encouraging implication is that we may already happen to be friends with someone who could be our dream partner: we just haven’t realized it yet. The yet-again-discouraging implication is that it’s pretty hard to find out who that hidden dream partner might be, without spending a lot of time in their presence.

“Love” is a word with many meanings, but maybe the deepest form of love is when you come to genuinely care about the other, in the same way as you care about yourself. Not just caring about the other so that they’ll like you in return, but putting intrinsic value on their well-being, the same way you put intrinsic value on your own well-being.

You ultimately get here, I suspect, by having enough smoothly-going interactions to experience increasing synchrony. Situations where your patterns of emotional association are so compatible that each of you intuitively acts in a way that promotes positive feelings in the other. My guess is that you start caring about the other as much as you care about yourself because some part of your mind comes to actually believe, on a level of emotional logic if not fact, that the two of you are the same.

This feeling of two people becoming one may actually be correct in a very concrete sense, as studies of people who co-operate and like each other show that their behavioral patterns, body language and spoken language, and neural patterns tend to become synchronized with each other. I am once again reminded of this quote from Michael “Vassar” Arc:

> In real-time domains, one rapidly assesses the difficulty of a challenge. If the difficulty seems manageable, one simply does, with no holding back, reflecting, doubting, or trying to figure out how one does. Figuring out how something is done implicitly by a neurological process which is integrated with doing. […] People with whom you are interacting […] depend on the fact that you and they are in a flow-state together. In so far as they and you become an integrated process, your actions flow from their agency as well as your own[.]

The opposite of synchrony, when things get really bad, is described as “walking on eggshells” or “being constantly unsure of what the other wants”. It is when the other person’s emotional associations are so out of sync with yours that it feels like anything you say or do may trigger a negative response, or when they really crave from you some behavior that would trigger in them a specific positive response – but you don’t know what that desired behavior would be. Because your patterns of emotional association are dissimilar, you have no idea of what is expected of you, and have no way of intuitively simulating it. “Put yourself in the other’s shoes” does not work because the two of you have different-sized feet: the kinds of shoes that feel comfortably tight to you feel excruciatingly small for your partner, and vice versa.

If a situation gets described as walking on eggshells, it has likely to do with a pattern of mutual incompatibilities that has become self-reinforcing and spiraled out of control. He is expecting a bit of peace and quiet and time for himself; she does not realize this and seeks his company. He tries to make her back away but she doesn’t understand the signals, until he lashes out in frustration. She experiences this seemingly-out-of-nowhere reaction as inexplicable rejection and is shocked to silence for a while, until she can no longer hold it in and bursts out – at which point he is shocked by this seemingly inexplicable hostile reaction that to him came out of nowhere. Afterwards, she feels insecure about their relationship so she pursues mutual closeness more aggressively, while he feels like his independence is at risk so he tries to get more distance. The pattern repeats, getting worse each time.

It does not help that having a negative emotional association triggered is experienced as a threat: it is not actually a matter of life and death, but the way people often react, it might as well be. The ideal thing to do at this point would be for both to draw deep breaths, mutually work to dispel each other’s reactions of panic, and figure out what actually happened and what both meant. The thing that commonly happens instead that both are in too much pain to think clearly and do everything they can to just make it hurt less. This often includes blaming the other and trying to make them admit that they were in the wrong, so that the other would promise to never do anything like that again.

Besides the other obvious problems in using this as a persuasion tactic, there is the fact that even if one partner did manage to force such a promise out of the other, the other still does not know what exactly triggered the reaction in the other. In other words, one person has promised to avoid doing something, but they don’t actually know what it is that they’ve promised not to do. They may know some specific things that they should avoid, but not understanding the emotional logic behind that rule, they are likely to do something else – to them seemingly different – that will trigger the same reaction. And when that happens, their partner will be even more upset at them, because “they broke their promise”.

This is why some people feel that a relationship having explicit rules is a warning sign. Not because having rules would be a bad thing by itself, but because needing to have codified rules means that one of the partners doesn’t understand the other’s emotions well enough to be able to avoid trouble just on an intuitive basis. In the worst case, the number of rules will bloat and get out of hand, as more and more of them will need to be added to cover all the different eventualities.

On a more encouraging note, it’s not actually necessary to solve all the incompatibilities. It’s possible to get away with just accepting that in some situations you will always have incompatible emotional patterns, and then have both partners tacitly avoid getting into such situations. Successful couples don’t actually resolve all of their problems: rather they just get good at dealing with them. In the meanwhile, couples who feel that they should be able to agree on everything end up worse and worse off.

Many if not most people crave a feeling of being understood. They want to feel that their desires and emotions are both understood and also accepted by the people who are important for them. Possibly this desire is so strong in us because of everything above: mutual emotional understanding allows us to have relationships (romantic or otherwise) where things just work, and where each partner can trust the other to understand the emotional logic driving them and can trust the other not to accidentally set off any emotional landmines. It may also be the reason for the thing I mentioned at the beginning of the article, where I’ve experienced mutual attraction with people who share some of my psychological issues: an intuitive part of our minds looks for emotionally similar people.