Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 9 — Insight (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
4 min readJul 7, 2020


“Mindfulness is basically teaching us how to appropriate and train a flexibility of attentional scaling so that we can intervene effectively in how we are framing our problems and increasing our chance of insight when insight is needed.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 8:

Ep. 9— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Insight [55:39]

  • “How can mindfulness train attention so as to cause more insight? To make one more dispositionally capable of insight?”
  • Michael Polanyi pointed out that attention has an important structure: an in-and-out “transparency-to-opacity shift” (e.g. if you’re wearing glasses you look through them, but if you take them off you can look at them — they have become opaque to you, the object of your seeing).
  • So there are two states of awareness: awareness through something (i.e. a “probe.” The glasses are an example of a probe. Or if you’re tapping your way around a plastic cup with a pencil in order to identify it, then the pencil is your probe, etc.) which is a subsidiary focal awareness, or awareness at something which is an explicit awareness.
  • Since you can shift between these, attention is a structuring phenomenon. The spotlight principle [from last time, Ep. 8] fails to take this layered, recursive structure into account when it talks about attention.
  • A good example of this is literacy (which we’ll return to later). You can so integrate literacy into your thinking that you don’t look at literacy so much as you look through it.
  • In addition to the in-and-out “transparency-to-opacity shift,” your mind is also shifting up and down from feature to gestalt (“eidos”) and back. e.g. interpreting the letters that make up a word (features) + the word and its meaning (gestalt). Again, the aplotlight metaphor captures none of this.
  • So you end up with a set of axes: the left-right of transparency-opacity, and the up-down of gestalt-features.
  • Nothing is absolutely a feature, it’s relative. “The letters are a feature in the word, and the word is a feature in the sentence.” This is a dynamic shifting through these axes by your attention. The scaling up of attention, and scaling down of attention.
  • The word ‘meditation’ means ‘move towards the center.’
  • Contemplation is often (today) used as a synonym for meditation, but notice the etymology of this one has ‘temple’ at the center, which actually comes from the Latin to refer to the part of the sky you look at to see signs from the gods. “To contemplate is to look up toward the divine.”
  • The Latin ‘contemplatia’ was a translation of the Greek word ‘theoria’ which means trying to see more deeply into reality.
  • So meditation is actually about moving inwards, and contemplartion is about focusing outwards. Meditation emphasizes scaling down, contemplation emphasizes scaling up.
  • Recall the 9-dot problem — where people automatically take the 9 dots to be representative of a square, and assume it to be a connect-the-dots problem. The solution relies on not treating the problem categorically, and to remove the idea of square from what you’re looking at. You have to break up the gestalt and de-automatize your cognition to make it more conscious. This is done through the transparency-to-opacity shift.
  • But that’s not enough — you still have to widen your frame of awareness and take what was in the background and change its relevance. Look for deeper, broader patterns. i.e. “scale up”
  • If you scale down too much it can mess you up (you lose sight of the gestalt and focus too much on specifics), and if you scale up too much you might get locked in the wrong frame of reference. So what do you do? Train people in both skills and train people to go between them, “to coordinate and get the right degree of attentional engagement that is most dynamically fitted to the world.”
  • “Mindfulness is basically teaching us how to appropriate and train a flexibility of attentional scaling so that we can intervene effectively in how we are framing our problems and increasing our chance of insight when insight is needed.”
  • Robert Forman refers to the “pure consciousness event” (“PCE”) — a kind of mystical experience you can have after extensive mindfulness practice.
  • Resonant at-onement occurs when you go the other way and scale up. A participatory, flowing sense of at-onement.
  • There’s a third state: a state of non-duality, which is where you experience both all at once. a.k.a. a prajna state. This is the state that is sought for, as it should lead to a comprehensive capacity for insight.
  • Siddhartha achieves this, and when asked if he’s a od or angelic being or prophet he says no. “Are you a man?” No. “Then what are you?” And Siddhartha replies: I am awake. (Has has re-membered the Being mode.)
  • “It seems that the more intelligent a creature is the more it will pursue altered states of consciousness” (e.g. New Caledonian crows will tumble down rooftops in order to make themselves dizzy)
  • Some people go into altered states and unlike a dream state — where we awake and realize it was less real — they claim it was more real that their conscious everyday reality! (Curious that they call it a “higher” state of consciousness…)
  • Often these mystical experiences are ineffable — there is no content, no coherence — but somehow you’re optimizing your capacity for making sense. And people find that deeply meaningful.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 10 — Consciousness (Summary & Notes):

List of Books in the Video:

  • Robert Forman — The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy
  • Aldous Huxley — The Perennial Philosophy
  • William Miller and Janet C’de Baca — Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives
  • Michael Polanyi — Knowing and Being
  • Michael Polanyi — The Tacit Dimension
  • Sebastian Watzl — Structuring Mind: The Nature of Attention and how it Shapes Consciousness
  • Wayne Wu — Attention



Mark Mulvey

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