Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 8 — The Buddha and ‘Mindfulness’(Summary & Notes)

When it comes to mindfulness, we need to be aware of the distinction between the language of training and the language of explaining.

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 7:

Ep. 8— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — The Buddha and “Mindfulness” [54:30]

  • When Siddhartha left the palace and encountered a sick person, and then an old person, and finally a funeral procession, he felt completely distressed and troubled. Why? His entire ‘having’ mode had been completely undermined. And when he returned to the palace to rejoin that world, he met a mendicant — a renouncer of the ‘having’ mode essentially — who appeared completely at peace. And this contrast between Siddhartha’s distress and the peace in this man was his introduction to the ‘being’ mode.
  • Disillusionment. Think of the double senses of this word. We use it as a description of someone who’s in a negative state (moving toward despair, sad, etc.). But note that the word actually just describes a loss of illusion. This is what Siddhartha experienced.
  • So he decides to leave the palace (even though he had a wife and child!), but this myth is saying that the moral life rests of something deeper (e.g. deeper than any moral failings Siddhartha may have had as a husband or father.) Morality depends upon your life being meaningful.
  • “It’s ultimately about being plugged into the cultivation of wisdom, not just being morally correct.”
  • The first thing Siddhartha tries is to pursue a life of asceticism — of self-denial. (Which makes sense at first, if the palace was all about self-indulgence then maybe the solution lies in its opposite). He starves himself to an extreme, but it wasn’t working. Because trying to annihilate the self is still thinking about having a self. He’s still in the ‘having’ mode, and understanding the problem from that mode. It’s merely the negation of self-indulgence, not its transcendence.
  • The Middle Path is to transcend the having mode by rejecting self-indulgence and its negation self-denial.
  • The being mode is about being connected in the right way.
  • sati — it means to remember; to remind. Especially a lost mode of being (not a fact, or event, etc.) Remembering ‘what it is like to…’ Like going back to a place you haven’t been for awhile and you start to recover and remember an identity you used to have there. We translate sati into our word mindfulness.
  • A way to understand how this feels is when you wake up. When you wake up from sleeping you recover your identity. You ‘re-member’ — you become a member again, you belong back to yourself.
  • Siddhartha is looking for a set of psychotechnologies that will let him remember — recover — the being mode. He is going to awaken. (Which is what his eventual name ‘Buddha’ means: The Awakened One)
  • The mindfulness revolution is a response to the meaning crisis today.
  • When it comes to mindfulness, we need to be aware of the distinction between the language of training and the language of explaining. For example, the “method of locations” (similar to the idea of the “mind palace,” made popular in the Sherlock series) helps people to remember things and is a powerful mnemonic tool for doing so. This uses powerful language of training — it trains your memory well. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is actually how memory is organized. The inner workings of actual memory have nothing to do with rooms or proximity of descriptions etc. (This spatial metaphor for memory is almost completely wrong.)
  • Words/Phrases commonly used to describe mindfulness practice that, while good tools for training, are not helpful in actually understanding mindfulness and how it works, at least not by themselves: ‘being present,’ ‘non-judging,’ ‘insight,’ ‘reduce reactivity.’ This is just a feature list. We’re missing the eidos.
  • States & Traits: being present and non-judging are things I can do. I can start and stop them. (States) While insight and reduced reactivity are not things you’re doing, they’re results. (Traits)
  • Once you organize them this way you can begin asking how the states can cause the traits. You can also understand how much of the states are parts of one another, or whether they’re part of a larger whole, etc. Same with the traits.
  • Siddhartha talks not just about concentration but ‘right concentration.’ Which immediately suggests there is a wrong concentration. So mindfulness isn’t just about concentrating, but getting the right kind of concentrating. Same with ideas of ‘paying attention’ — it has to be the right kind of attention.
  • Ellen Langer talks about ‘soft vigilance’: constantly trying to renew your interest in something. (the etymology of the word ‘interest’ is actually rooted in the idea of ‘to be in something’). “Constantly exploring and opening it up.”
  • Attention is not like a spotlight. The metaphor makes sense, because a spotlight makes things brighter and therefore more salient, but it doesn’t get at the constant optimization process that underlies attention and how it can be connected to insight.
  • Attention isn’t something you directly do. For example, if someone told you to walk, you would walk. And if they said stop walking, you would stop walking. But if they said “Practice!” you’d naturally respond with something like, “Practice what?” To practice chess is to optimize how you play chess. You pay attention by optimizing other things you’re doing. (Like seeing, hearing, etc.)

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

List of Books in the Video:

  • Stephen Batchelor — Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism
  • Michael Eysenck — Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook
  • Ellen Langer — Mindfulness
  • Christopher Mole — Attention is Cognitive Unison: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology
  • Amir Raz & Michael Lifshitz — Hypnosis and Meditation: Towards an Integrative Science of Conscious Planes
  • Susan Wolf — Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

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