Fantasy or Reality (Part 1)

[Epistemic status: Still trying to understand. Expect a lot more of that….]

[This is the first post in what I intend to be a series that goes roughly like this: 1. Concepts are not as high-fidelity as we normally (act like we) believe. 2. What exactly are we doing with concepts? 3. Productive vs. destructive uses of concepts. 4. The “emptiness” of all concepts.]


I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the contents of our consciousness. What I mean here is: moment-by-moment, sensation-by-sensation, thought-by-thought, what makes up human experience. Meditation traditions, and in particular Theraveda Buddhism, offer a hypothesis, namely, in Sam Harris’s words, that most people most of the time live in a “waking dream.” There are several ways to think about this assertion I suspect; in this post, I want to take a look at one of them.

It seems to me that most of what occupies my consciousness at least is mental content. I would hazard the same is true of most human beings, and the ability to live otherwise is one of the key goals and offerings of meditative practice. In other words, most of what we routinely pay attention to is, in a certain sense, not real. (I want to punt on the issue of what is real, if the meditative model of human experience is accurate. That is a deep question, and I’ll save theorizing myself into a black hole of confusion for another night.)

Narrative is the classic example of this phenomenon. When we sit down to read a book, it seems clear that our attention primarily rests on mental content. When you’re sitting in a comfortable chair, book open on your lap, the only physical sensations you’re experiencing come from the tactile interaction between your body and the chair (and the air, etc.), any sounds that might be around you, and the irregular black and white pattern printed on the pages you’re staring at. None of these capture “the story” as it ultimately exists in your mind and in the form it can be communicated to others. So that must be somehow constructed, through vision and language, by your mind.

Despite not being real (again, in a certain sense), narratives can capture attention in a very sticky way. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings. Lots of other people are, too. Tolkien crafted such a compelling world that it just feels good to let the mind sink into it, wandering through the Shire, or the Misty Mountains, or pondering what it was like when the Witch-king ruled Angmar, when he was still human. Even now, despite basically never reading fantasy novels, when I find myself out in the woods or mountains, I sometimes imagine myself as a member of the Fellowship, or wonder what it’d be like to descend into the dwarven city I imagine beneath my feet.

Novels and other storytelling forms occupy a special place in our culture. We enter the narratives communicated by these forms in a circumscribed way. The stories are accepted as real while we’re engaging with the book, movie, or whatever, and lose that status when we get up from reading. The bleed-through, though it probably exists (due to shared stories that come from popular movies, etc., and other things like that), is well-contained; at least, that’s definitely what we tell ourselves.

The stories I feel more concerned about are the ones we don’t normally think of as stories or concepts at all. Self-concepts, which is to say the labels we put on ourselves, are like that. We’re all carrying around all kinds of self-concepts. Ones I see a lot are: “intelligent,” “successful,” “attractive,” “funny,” “curious,” “spiritual,” “artistic,” “creative,” “free-spirited,” and — just in case you thought this post was gonna go in a positive direction — their opposites. Of course, there’s no reason to stop at the self; we apply labels like this to other people all the time.

To me, these concepts feel one step closer than novels or movies to being out-there-in-the-world. I suspect most people share that intuition. It just feels like, yeah, people are “kind” to varying degrees (for example) and, sure, the labels are part of the map, but it’s a pretty good map and definitely reflects something about the territory. What’s more, I think that’s actually true. It’s just the map often isn’t as reliable a guide as we’d like to believe.

The divergence between map and territory can be viewed from two perspectives. The first is the way we normally think about it. When it comes to people, one of the most basic divergences comes from the fundamental attribution error; FAE is a basic error most of us constantly make in which we attribute people’s behavior to static personality traits, failing to account for how much people’s behavior (and therefore perceived personality) varies across situations.

Many of us are aware of the existence of FAE and sort of correct for it. Instead of the basic model where someone who is, say, “kind” always behaves generously and warmly toward people, we carry around an upgraded model where a person who is “kind” is just more likely to behave that way. If we’re feeling especially sophisticated, we might upgrade the model further to admit that kindness can inhere in relationships more than people; someone who’s generous toward you might not behave that way toward all, or even most, people.


But now things get complicated because the other issues with the model/map becomes apparent. One, the closer you look at the map, the more it wavers and falls apart. And, two, on some level we prefer looking at the map rather than the territory, the model rather than the data underlying it (more later on whether that’s actually a problem).

It doesn’t feel like the point can really be made with simple labels like “kind” and so on. So, screw it, let’s dive into the deep end: how about “helping someone”? I personally derive a lot of satisfaction from “helping people.” That can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it’s teaching someone an interesting concept; sometimes it’s holding space for someone to express themselves openly; sometimes it’s going a step further and talking through interpretations or solutions of an issue someone is having; sometimes it’s guiding someone through a difficult bouldering problem they didn’t think they could do. Whatever.

What does it even mean to “help,” though? I think this question is actually why traditional wisdom insists on care when giving advice. It’s clear that I’m offering something to the other person when I do the activities above, so the giving aspect of “help” does seem to be present, but there’s a lot of complication hidden underneath the simple label.

At the most basic level, to me, the concept of “help” entails some improvement, that the person’s life was made “better” in some way by my involvement. The problem is, how would I know? Part of the problem is the limited visibility I have into the other person’s mental state. At one point, I was listening a lot to a good friend talk about some problems in his life, and offering interpretations and ideas related to them. After we’d talk for a while, it seemed like he felt lighter and more energetic, more capable of doing what was right for him. And that seems “good.”

If I look more closely at that statement, though, further complexities emerge. For one thing, it’s unclear on what basis I concluded that he felt “lighter.” Maybe he was laughing and smiling more, maybe he talked more about concrete productive actions he could take, maybe something else. Whatever it was, I fundamentally don’t know the mental state that underlay the behavior I saw and the speech I heard. It’s fully possible he ended up taking the exact same actions he would’ve taken without talking to me. Of course, even then, maybe he felt “better” about those actions and about his problems. One way I’d know that is he described himself as “feeling better,” which sometimes he did.

The recursion doesn’t end there. Mental states are complicated, and tagging them as “good” or “bad,” “better” or “worse,” is a questionable endeavor. If by “better,” we mean “more pleasurable,” it’s unclear that “better” really is better. One reason for this is sometimes we have to go through highly unpleasurable mental states to reach pleasurable ones. That happens in pretty much any difficult project, and our society has drilled the story of progress through difficulty pretty deeply into our psyches. Sometimes it won’t be so obvious that an unpleasurable mental state is a necessary part of movement toward a more pleasurable one, however, and in that case, the story of progression doesn’t grip as tightly, and the likelihood of giving in to aversion increases.

Another problem is that “more pleasurable” doesn’t seem like the right way to gloss “better.” In my working model of what it means to lead a good life, pleasure is a necessary but not dominant component; the thing to optimize for is a complicated amalgam that philosophers, especially virtue ethicists, call “flourishing” (or eudaimonia). To me, that concept encompasses meaning, community, capability, physical and emotional intimacy, adequate food and shelter, and probably other subtler goods that aren’t coming to mind right now. And the tricky thing about flourishing, as distinct from pleasure, is that it cannot really be assessed on a moment-by-moment basis. It appears to be a property of segments of life trajectories, since moment-by-moment it can include many unpleasurable states that in isolation could easily be viewed as undesirable.

In other words, even under an expanded definition of “good” as encompassing “eventual good,” we can’t really know if a particular mental state is desirable or not, in terms of what is overall “good” for us as human beings. Ditto for states of the world. If the flourishing view is more correct than the pleasure view, which I believe, then there’s a further complexity in that assessments of “goodness” can only be made for sufficiently long periods of time (which also: how long exactly is long enough?). And even the concept of goodness is unstable and open to debate. Philosophers have been debating it for thousands of years; even apart from that literal debate, the same debate plays out implicitly in each of us as we make decisions in our lives.

Ask David Brooks. A good life is one of virtue, rooted in community, contribution, and character. Cultivate yourself, find what you can do for the world, and watch as your life begins to seem “good.” Some people lead this life with great success; others, not so much.

Or: a good life is one of freedom and simplicity, preferably out in the natural world, unencumbered by the boondoggles of civilization. Go out and adventure, experience the surfaces of things, and in that, you’ll find salvation.

Or: a good life is one of contemplation and understanding, maybe with some asceticism thrown in. Give yourself up to God, or meditate ten hours a day until the True Nature of Experience becomes clear to you. Everything else is sin, or delusion and suffering.

Or: a good life is one of animal satisfaction. Our human needs are very simple, when it comes right down to it. We need a tribe, food, shelter, and sex. Get those things, vanish into the world of the object-level, and everything else will sort itself out.

These visions of the good life often conflict, and though it may be possible to reconcile them, it’s difficult. The truth is they all offer an view of what a good human life is. They’re ultimately all right, just incomplete.

Even taking just one element of one of these visions, zooming in immediately leads to further confusion. For example, I feel very confident human connection is an important component of a life well-lived. Even Thoreau and Abbey valued friendship to punctuate their solitude.

But… “connection” turns out to be as elusive as any other concept. I used to think I knew what connection was pretty unequivocally; my mind recognized it by a very specific pleasant feeling. The good news was that I got increasingly skilled at behaving in a way that would produce that feeling, so much so that I thought I’d become “good at connection” (hahahahaha). And then I moved to a new city, and unsurprisingly, getting that feeling became a lot harder. I started to notice how much effort I was exerting to produce that feeling, how that effort often failed, how painful the whole thing was.

Possibly the explanation is that, well, I moved to a new place with unfamiliar people. That’s definitely part of it (dependent origination, etc. etc.). I suspect it’s deeper than that, though. I suspect my mind had tagged one specific form of connection as the One True Form, insisting that any other experience of another person’s presence is disconnection, loneliness, solipsism. As I pay more attention to what the experience of being with someone else is actually like, and to let go of the enormous effort I was exerting, I’m discovering a new ease in the mundane flow of human contact. I’m noticing the moments when I feel alone and when my mind can truly notice and let in the other person’s presence. It feels like I’m finding that connection is more common than I’d thought, though also more complex and subtle.

The same is true of everything else.


We still haven’t arrived at the bottom of the recursion, and I want to cut this off, so let’s skip ahead. Continuing the process indefinitely, we’d eventually arrive at the conclusion that the only groundings for concepts are individual moments of experience. Through meditation, we can come to observe these individual moments. You don’t have to meditate to believe this, although meditation makes it possible to see experience at a far finer level of detail than the untrained mind is capable of. Experience is there either way, however.

The point I’m trying to make is that, most of the time, I get the impression people are not doing that grounding. I definitely haven’t for most of my life, and, even now, I struggle with it. (Nothing about this point is revolutionary, by the way: the Buddha made it two-thousand years ago and it’s not exactly news in modern times, either. It’s definitely part of the point of Val’s much-discussed post on Looking.)

Staying with the consensus reality map has many benefits, no question. There’s a lot of practical folk wisdom behind the model of the world it codifies, making it a strong baseline, and it’s convenient for quick communication with others. I’m not sure this even needs to be said, since most of us are pretty big fans of the consensus model.

What does need to be said is that, for certain purposes, the model is horrifyingly inadequate. And yet despite that, people stick to it.

“Shoulds” illustrate the inadequacy in a way I find very compelling. By “should” I just mean any sense the mind generates that something should be done a certain way. CFAR puts a lot of emphasis on this concept, probably because the mind generates a lot of these injunctions. Their take on it, which I’ve more or less adopted, is that “shoulds” can be productively viewed as data and processed from that perspective.

That’s a profound shift in model and fully internalizing it isn’t easy. It seems like a lot of people carry around a model of the world where “shoulds” are atomic; I can still access that model, and get tricked by it (unfortunately). In that model, “shoulds” correspond to objective facts about the world and feel like they generate pulls-toward and pushes-away-from certain actions, thoughts, and emotions. One way to think of that map of the world is that it posits the existence of boundaries to freedom. You can do this, but not that, because you “shouldn’t” do that. Since “should” is a primitive in this model/map, no further discussion is necessary or even possible.

From the perspective of this post, CFAR’s approach is basically asking us to look more closely at what is actually happening when we encounter the “should” force field. If they wanted to teach it in a very meditative way, they could ask some question like, “Where is that force?” Or from a circling/focusing perspective, “What is the whole sense of that force?” The first question, asked with openness, leads to the obvious conclusion that the force is in the mind; it’s a felt sense, a strong one sometimes but ultimately just a constellation of physical sensations and mental impressions.

The second question leads to a deconstruction of that felt sense and the discovery of its component parts. To me, a strong “should” often comes with a feeling of tension or freezing: my back tenses, chest tightens, and a frisson moves through my entire body. It’s often associated with shame and a sense of generalized disapproval; different people whose opinions matter to me come to mind, and I imagine their disapproving faces. In other words, a strong “should” for me is some amalgam of fear and shame. It’s basically a prediction that other people will disapprove of my action and an alert from my mind that it believes that to be painful at best and dangerous at worst.

What it is not is a thing external to me. At first glance, the intense fear that comes from that prediction of disapproval feels very solid. The mind recoils from the fear and wants to avoid doing the thing that would cause the fear’s prediction to come true. Even looking at it more closely, it feels solid. It feels like a swirl of images, thoughts, physical sensations, and physical/psychological pain that add up to a single, obvious conclusion: don’t do this thing; if you do, something bad will happen.

This description fits comfortably in CFAR’s map of the world but much less so in (what I take to be) the default map where “shoulds” are atomic. And it’s helpful to access the perspective where “shoulds” dissolve into mental movements because it allows us to notice that we have the affordance to do the thing that we “should not do.”

The more refined model makes obvious a freedom obscured by the default.

Despite knowing that, I still notice that my mind often experiences “shoulds” as very solid. So solid in fact that it basically hides the constituent parts and sometimes even the existence of the should, skipping straight to the part where a certain course of action isn’t considered, or the implicit constraints on action are “magically” in line with the relevant “should.”

It’s possible to tell multiple stories about why the mind preserves that solidity. One story is simply that it allows the avoidance of the suffering associated with noticing the sensations and emotions underlying the “should.” That feels partially right: accessing the underlying feelings even just to write this post was painful, and I notice a shrinking-away from them. Even the sense of freedom that arises isn’t free of suffering. It has a melancholy aspect. It comes with a sense of the ultimate meaningnessless of all things: we are here for a while to live, to commune with the world and each other, and then we pass, having experienced both joy and suffering, into nothing; nothing lasts forever.

The suffering explanation is basically Buddhism’s explanation for the mind’s aversion to deconstruction and capital-I Insight. Underlying all sensations, so the Theravadans posit, is a global unsatisfactoriness or incompleteness that the mind wants to escape from. So clear perception comes with an inherent pain, at least until sufficient equanimity is cultivated.

Whatever explanation we give, it does seem to be the case that the mind is attached to its model of the world. Parts of it don’t want to see that the map is just a map, don’t even want to replace the map with a new, more useful map.

There’s a part of me that wants to end this post on an inspiring note. At times, I’ve experienced the noticing of the map and its replacement as incredibly liberating, in fact as the liberation from all constraint whatsoever. In those moments of falling-away, I feel godlike in my unbounded affordances.

Look how much can be done, if only all the options are noticed and considered, if only every constraint is examined and recognized as ultimately conceptual!

But the truth is, right now, I feel very human, very aware of the limitations of my own mind. The agency I exert, the forward movement in the direction of my choosing, feels less like a resolute stride and more like a (resolute) stumbling forward in darkness.

In that realization, there’s a calm, cool power, too. A knowledge that clarity and a sense of strength are not prerequisites for action. Action can feel like fumbling in the dark. It’s still action.

And I feel like that realization is also a part of updating my map of the world, maybe at some very meta-level. It’s like updating the map of the relation between my mind and the world, or of my mind’s model of its own capacity. A deep paradox wells up for me, the thought that even in clarity there is blindness and even in blindness, clarity.

I notice the attachment to the idea that my map of the world has changed, is changing — and for the better. And I notice that that, too, is part of the map that the mind wants to look at.

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