Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 13 — Buddhism and Parasitic Processing (Summary & Notes)

“The very things that make you so intelligently adaptive simultaneously make you vulnerable to self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 12:

  • [Highly recommends all of Stephen Batchelor’s books. “The Awakening of the West” specifically deals with how the West misunderstood Buddhist teachings when they were first introduced and interpreted.]
  • Batchelor argues that we’re facing an interpretation crisis when it comes to understanding Buddhist in the West. Two approaches: 1. that you can only interpret Buddhism from within a tradition (which is problematic because it’s myopic and subjective), and 2. that you can only interpret Buddhism from outside a tradition. The former is about transformative relevance, while the latter is about getting at ‘the truth.’ Socrates might argue that Buddhism is about both of these: finding transformatively relevant truths.
  • We need to get beyond (transcend) both of these options in some way. Batchelor argues that each gets fixated on something that is holding it back. The “within” approach is myopic because it gets hung up on the traditions and fixated on beliefs.
  • (We’ll see later that this will also be relevant when trying to address the Meaning Crisis. Belief systems, namely ideologies, are attempts to create meaning but they fail because your meaning-making abilities aren’t functioning on that belief level.)
  • We need to look at Buddhism existentially. Now, traditionally we’re presented with what the Buddha says as The Four Noble Truths. Unfortunately, these occur at that belief level that Batchelor says we need to get beyond. We need to understand these Four Noble Truths in terms of affordances, not beliefs. The point is not to believe them but to use them to help reenact the Buddha’s enlightenment. (Vervaeke things maybe we should call them “The Four Ennobling Provocations”)
  • The first Truth is “All is suffering.” First of all, as a belief it’s false because suffering is a comparative term and comparative terms can’t be extended to everything. “It’d be like saying everything is tall.” It really means something more like “All is threatened by.”
  • Suffering now means something like ‘pain’ or ‘distress’ but that’s not really what the word originally (or etymologically) means. Suffering means ‘to undergo.’ To lose agency. So you can actually suffer joy — experience so much joy you lose control of yourself. (Pain is certainly one common way of losing agency — it’s very disruptive, usually preceded by damage — which is probably why our current sense of the word aligns more to that example.) So the Buddha isn’t saying “everything is painful.”
  • “Most of the Buddha’s metaphors aren’t pain metaphors they’re entrapment metaphors. Being fettered. Losing your freedom. Losing your agency.”
  • The Buddha has famously said: “Just like wherever you dip into the ocean it has one taste, the taste of salt, no matter where you dip into my teaching it has one taste, the taste of freedom.” So with this Truth he’s saying something more like: “realize that all of your life is threatened with the loss of freedom, the loss of agency.” The word for this type of loss is dukkha.
  • The etymology of dukkha actually comes from the idea of an axle to a wheel that is a little off-center which causes an unbalanced rolling that eventually works to destroy itself. This is the same sense Shakespeare used in Hamlet when he said “time is out of joint.” That something is off balance and leading to self-destruction. A shoulder joint that is off can lead to improper rotations that cause damage. Etc.
  • We use a series of heuristics (mental shortcuts) to apprehend the world and probabilities since we can’t possibly compute all the variables to imagine another event occurring again. (E.g. representative heuristic, availability heuristic, etc.)
  • encoding specificity. e.g. when you’re sad, it’s very hard for you to remember examples when you were happy, but easy to remember events when you were sad. Your memory doesn’t just store facts but all that perspectival participatory knowing. (If you had a headache when studying for a test and take aspirin, take aspirin when you take the test and it will improve your performance. People who take tests in the same room they studied for it perform better than those who take the test in a different room.) This is adaptive. “Your brain is always trying to fit you to the environment.”
  • So combining these heuristics and encoding specificity: if something bad happens, and you’re more likely to remember other bad things happening, then you will judge more bad things happening as more probable (availability heuristic). The bad thing that just happened to you is very salient, which also makes you judge that it’s more likely to happen (representative heuristic) The two heuristics then reinforce each other.
  • All of this is interacting with the confirmation bias — the tendency to only look for information that supports your current belief.
  • All of this increasing of belief that something bad will happen — that the probability of negative events is high — makes you anxious. Anxiety causes you to lose cognitive flexibility, and you ability to solve problems goes down, which causes you to make mistakes, and fail… which reinforces your belief that bad events are likely to happen to you…
  • “The very things that make you so intelligently adaptive simultaneously make you vulnerable to self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior.” That is what it means to say: realize that all of your life is threatened by dukkha. Vervaeke calls this parasitic processing.
A schema for depression released recently by a team of MIT researchers.
  • “The very things that make you so intelligently adaptive simultaneously make you vulnerable to self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior.” That is what it means to say: realize that all of your life is threatened by dukkha. Vervaeke calls this parasitic processing.
  • Addiction is primarily the loss of agency. That’s ultimately the determining factor when diagnosing someone — how dysfunctional they become and how much they lose their agency.
  • Right now we have a chemical model for addiction, which is where our brain is deprived of a chemical and seeks to obtain it and if we can’t get it we suffer from something akin to the lack of food, etc. Unfortunately it’s almost completely false. Here’s a fact that this model can’t help explain: most people voluntarily, spontaneously give up their addiction in their 30’s. (The literature mainly studies the minority who did not give it up)
  • Marc Lewis, author of Memoir of an Addicted Brain, offers another model: reciprocal narrowing. In terms of the agent-arena relationship: as your cognitive agency becomes less flexible (say, from feedback loops like the ones above involving heuristics) then you see fewer options in the world, which reinforce your perception that there are fewer options, and so on until this relationship narrows to the point where you have no options about who you could be or how the world could be. And that’s what addiction is. “A perspectival learning of the loss of agency.”
  • The opposite of this — the spiraling UP version — is anagoge. The move toward enlightenment.
  • The second Truth is: “Suffering is caused by desire.” Which is inherently paradoxical (If you desire enlightenment then…). A better way of interpreting this is: realize that dukkha can be understood.
  • The third Truth is “The cessation of suffering is attainable.” Another better way of thinking of this is: realize that you can recover your agency.
  • As a way forward, the Buddha offered The Eightfold Path, which counteracts parasitical processing and does reciprocal opening, to cultivate: right understanding, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right mindfulness, right concentration.
  • Right as in right-handedness: “getting an optimal grip (because that is what my right hand is an expert in doing)”
  • Understanding and thinking are about your cognition, speech and action are about your character, and mindfulness and concentration are about your consciousness.
  • Stephen Batchelor — The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture
  • Stephen Batchelor — Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening
  • Stephen Batchelor — Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism
  • Stephen Batchelor — After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age
  • Marc Lewis — Memoirs of an Addicted Brain



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Mark Mulvey

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