Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tasting Godhood

words: 2477

[Note: This is my take on a thing I’ve been learning from Max Harms. He’s very good at it, from my perspective. I am not.]

When I savor a wine, I am careful and slow. I attend and adjust, listening intently, as though I’m waiting for a very quiet song over an old radio that I have to tune.

What is the song? It’s never “this wine tastes good” or “this wine tastes bad”. The song was composed by someone else, and they were trying to communicate what they were thinking and feeling as they crafted it. My goals and values are not components of their song.

The song of the wine itself is carried on things like “a tingly peppery spice at the tip of my tongue”. It interacts with my own mind, of course, and when it’s filtered through my memories it might come to me as “the time when Grandpa and I were eating oatmeal raisin cookies while he smoked a pipe”. From that I can extract “oatmeal, raisins, and tobacco”, and hold those perceptions against the other sensations created by the wine, to taste the larger shape of its flavor. I sometimes do free-association while drinking wine, to pick up more subtleties like this.

There are lots of subtleties, lots of sensations going on all at once, and I have to listen closely to hear all the parts. I usually have to listen multiple times.

In early college, when I drank wine for the first time outside of Mass, my experience was very different. I was mainly concerned with whether I could tolerate the taste long enough to get drunk.

I don’t mean to say that it’s better to experience food and drink as art. Sometimes wolfing down the nutrients needed to run my body is exactly the right thing to do.

What I’m pointing at, rather, is that my brain is programmed to efficiently assess whether food is safe to eat, and whether it is calorically rich. Chefs, winemakers, and other culinary artists are doing their own thing, which is almost orthogonal to the goals (so to speak) of biological evolution. So, if I want to know what a carefully crafted food actually tastes like, then I have to do something weird with my mind. I have to be an epicure, which I would not do by default, because it’s not part of a human mind’s factory settings.

This is, of course, a metaphor for rationality in general. But I’m going to apply it a bit more precisely than that.


When I struggle to empathize with someone (which is pretty much every time I try, in my case), the main obstacle is the very same thing that originally prevented me from tasting wine.

By default, I’m only perceiving a few blunt fragments of info about how they relate to my goals and values. Are they smart? Do they signal like my in-group? Are they easy to talk to? Do they enjoy the same things as me? Can I tolerate this wine long enough to get drunk?

And I’m filtering the info so quickly that I’m not even aware it’s happening, unless I’m looking right at the process. The thing that makes it to consciousness and feels like “my perception of the person” actually contains more of my song than theirs. I’ve discarded most of their personhood.

Again, I’m not saying that this is always bad. I need to be able to make quick judgments, sometimes, about whether a person is safe or dangerous, friend or enemy, smart or dumb.

But if I want, for whatever reason, to see them for more of what they are than for what I am, I have to do a weird thing with my mind. I have to be an epicure of personhood, to see them as an artistic experience in the midst of creating itself.

I can’t always do it. It’s hard for me. But when I deliberately choose to try, and then it works, here’s how that happens.

First, I take on a mental posture I call “dreaming”. It’s the one I use for brain storming, fiction writing, and solving lateral thinking puzzles. Its central features are disinhibition and creativity. If you want to know what it feels like, name as many animals as you can in the next minute.

When I name as many animals as I can in the next minute, it starts out feeling sort of panicked, then easy and familiar, and then I feel struggle when I begin to run out of dogs, cats, and elephants. And then, often, something shifts, and things start flowing again. I name animals I haven’t thought about for a long time, like tapirs and rat snakes. I describe animals whose names I can’t remember, like those fish with the transparent heads and you can see their brains. I even begin to name things like venus fly traps, and then I go, “wait, that’s not an animal”. Everything after that shift is “dreaming”.

So I start to dream about the person in front of me, using the bits and pieces of what I know of them (and of people in general). They are a prompt, a seed for association.

I dream about what they might have done that day - taking the train to work, Kindle sitting on their lap as the train lurches and roars; meeting their spouse for lunch and receiving a kiss on the cheek; choosing the green shirt they’re wearing from among the other shirts in their closet. I dream about experiences from earlier times in their life - riding in the back seat of a car, boxes crammed in all around them, as their family moved across the country, or the last conversation they had with their best friend from high school. If I know that being a student is important to them, and that they’ve been struggling with the structure and culture of academia, I might imagine them watching the clock during a dull lecture.

Next, I shift into first person perspective while I continue dreaming about them. At first the shift is just outrospective: the arm rest of the couch is under ”my” arm, and I don’t see my own head or face as I make eye contact with “my” best friend from high school.

But then I focus in on the emotions, especially the ones related to what they want in that situation, and I feed in anything I can infer about their values, aspirations, and talents. What might it be like for this person to visit their hometown after a couple years of college, and hang out with someone they used to be close to but has gone their own way since then?

I might get something like pining, and the feeling of familiar ground being suddenly strange. That would be mixed with curiosity and caring. Maybe a little shame that my caring is more “for old time’s sake” than genuine interest in the person in front of me. I try to see the answers from a first-person emotional perspective, just like like the visuals but fleshed out with introspective sensations as well this time. It feels like filling my own body with their experiences.

Then I change the genre from “semi-biographical Earthfic” to something like “semi-biographical far-future utopion sci-fi/fantasy”. I use those emotion-and-value-laden first person experiences from their past and present, and dream about what they might become, what they might do, what it might feel like to be them, if all their current limitations were eliminated. If they could actually get what they wanted. If they lived in a world optimized for their own flourishing. If, basically, they were a god.

(I often set this a couple centuries out in a world with a slow AI takeoff, instead of a foom-type intelligence explosion. The first thing is a lot easier to imagine in concrete detail, and I’m going for richness over accuracy.)

My father is a high school biology teacher. He also raises animals, and loves nurturing things in general. When I did house chores as a kid, he’d have me cover the mesh ceilings of terrariums with ice so that as it melted, his lizards could drink the rain.

^That time the emu got cold so Dad gave it his sweater.

When I imagine his distant future, sometimes I think of a whole planet with nothing but interesting creatures for him to cultivate and love. He doesn’t spend all his time there, but he at least takes long visits.

I think of him exploring an alien forest and finding a crab that shimmers strangely. (Surprise, interest, curiosity, excitement, examination.) He takes it back to his lab - a giant greenhouse in the middle of the forest, packed with all kinds of sciency gadgets. (Adventure, planning, inquiry, caretaking, diligence.) After lots of investigation, perhaps with the help of younger naturalists he mentors, he understands what causes it to shimmer. Then he begins to manipulate pockets of his planet’s ecosystem so that other creatures can shimmer as well. (Creativity, advancement, satisfaction.)

I call this “tasting godhood”. Or, sometimes, “tasting personhood”. They are the same.

At this point in the process, it becomes hard not to see the person as an artistic process. But even so, I might move back and forth between different periods in their lives: their future as it contains their past, and their past as it contains their future. I feel for the similarities between the experiences of the future god and the experience of the present person. Dad’s experience as he makes a comfortable space for the shimmery crab in his forest greenhouse is similar to his experience when he covers the terrariums in his apartment with ice cubes. One is a human, and the other a god, but they are instances of a single person.

^Dad’s sulcata tortoise has a Tile glued to its shell, so he can be found via bluetooth when he wanders off. One day Darwin dislodged the Tile, and then went on a grand adventure. I found out when Dad made a Facebook post asking all his students and friends to keep an eye out for a seventy pound tortoise roaming the countryside. “His tracker isn't working. I've been searching for hours,” he wrote. “He is very friendly, and loves strawberries.” If it had gone on any longer, I think he’d have printed up dozens of “Have you seen this tortoise???” fliers and scattered them about the little towns near his farm. But Darwin came back, all on his own! And Dad fed him fruit to welcome him home.

The specific experiences I imagine are probably quite different from the ones the person actually has/had/will have, but the point is that I’m perceiving them in a different way. I’m looking for the particular notes in the complex bouquet of their personhood, not deciding whether I can tolerate them long enough to collaborate on a project. Not drinking the wine just to get drunk.

It’s a lot easier to empathize with a person when I’m actually paying attention to them, instead of to how they relate to my goals. This is pretty obvious, in retrospect. But unless I do the weird epicurean thing, “how they relate to my goals” just is what “perceiving another person” feels like, even when I’m deliberately focusing on them. And when I’m not deliberately focusing on them, perceiving another person tends to feel like walking past furniture.

Undoubtedly, that’s partially because I’m missing important social software that comes pre-installed for most people. Still, much of what I know about how human minds work suggests that even neurotypicals spend most of their time a lot closer to the “wine is good or bad” side of social perception than the “oatmeal cookies and grandpa’s pipe” side. At the very least, they lack control over their position on that spectrum.

But there’s another way this practice might be used even when empathy is very easy for you: Tasting godhood doesn’t have to be directed at someone else. You are a person as well.


I often look for my own godhood by this method. I go through exactly the same procedure - dreaming about specific experiences, imagining the present, imagining the past, speculating about the future - using myself as a prompt. In some ways it’s easier, because I can draw on memories rather than just imaginings.

Why would I do this, if I already know exactly what it’s like to be me? Well in fact I’m often not aware of what it’s like to be “me”, in the sense of being a complex pattern of values and experiences and decisions, distributed across time. It’s easy to focus in on the pieces of the pattern that are surfacing in the current moment, forgetting that there are many other ways I have been or might become.

And it’s easy to tell a simple story about myself that’s really just a few blunt fragments of info involving whatever happens to be on my mind at the moment. So it’s especially useful to spend some time tasting my godhood when I’m judging myself harshly, when I’m only able to see myself in terms of simple hateful judgments like “I am broken” or “I am stupid and lazy”.

I think this method is an especially good way into self-compassion at those times. When I’ve tried to find self compassion by other methods, the main sticking point has been that they work by denying or at least distracting me from accurate perceptions of weakness or whatever. Telling my shame to just shove it almost never works.

When I taste my godhood, though, I see the truth of those judgements in context. I see the way my struggles result from conflicts between what I most deeply value and the constraints of a broken world. And this happens as a side effect of seeing myself Originally, even if I’m just trying to “remember myself”, as opposed to processing shame in particular.

I don’t feel hatred toward an oak seedling for not being a hundred feet tall, especially when it’s growing in a desert. Even though it’s small and fragile. (Of course it’s small. Of course it’s fragile.) Instead, I feel love and awe, because I can see what it’s trying to become. I want to give it water so it can reach up into the sky. When I see myself Originally, I perceive myself as a god seed just beginning to sprout.

Tasting the personhood of anyone feels this way. A person is a god. Everything else is mere humanity.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Relinquishment Cultivation

word count: 2,727

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.


I consider loving-kindness meditation to be a central example of a “cultivation” exercise. If you’re one of the people it fits well and you do it regularly for a long time, it nudges your dominant cognitive patterns into a more compassionate shape. Eventually, you become a more compassionate person, overall.

Some more examples: Shikantaza, and other meditations that go straight for enlightenment, might also be cultivation meditations. If you do daily gratitude journaling, that’s probably a cultivation for gratitude (or some related capacity). Runners who train at slightly greater distances every week cultivate endurance.

Gendlin’s Focusing, by contrast, is not primarily a cultivation.

In exploring the craft of meditation design, one thing I’d like to learn is how to cultivate arbitrary virtues using nothing but my own mind. So I set out to build a meditation that cultivates epistemic relinquishment. And here it is.


It borrows the structure of loving-kindness meditation, but has nothing to do with compassion. To start, you’ll need to tailor the building blocks so they each fit you snugly and don’t chafe. Then I’ll explain how to put them together, and at the end, I’ll suggest variations.

Stuff you’ll need (I’ll discuss each of these in detail):

  • a fixation point
  • a reference experience
  • a mantra
  • a belief it would be very easy to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • a belief it would be a little hard to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • (eventually) a belief it would be very difficult to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • some circumstances that would be counter-evidence against each belief


A fixation point is an external target onto which you can rest all of your attention. The goal is to gather up as many cognitive resources as possible in preparation for the meditation. Some examples include

  • the sound of your breath
  • the visual details of a dime-sized spot on the wall
  • the feeling of your feet touching the ground

The “external” part is important. When you look at a spot on the wall, you can be sure the spot will stay put. If you instead focused on “what you’re feeling right now”, you’d have a moving target. Choose something that will stay put without any effort on your part, so you’re free to devote your whole mind to mere observation.

A note on neuroatypical attention: I expect that fixation may be a wrong move for a lot of people, especially some with ADD. If fixation sounds terribly unpleasant, you should probably skip it. Do whatever will help you engage with the rest of the meditation.

A Reference Experience

During this meditation, you’ll be moving into a mental state where it would be easy to let go of a belief that carries extreme personal significance. What would such a mental state feel like?

You might not get this right, at first, and that’s ok. But try to take a guess. You can call on memories of changing your mind, or imagined experiences from fiction or other people’s lives. Think of a time when you held or even defended a belief fiercely, but then something changed so it became possible fto update easily. That is the kind of state you’re looking for.

In my case, the relevant feeling is a kind of freedom, relaxation, and relief. It’s a letting go, a recognition that I’m not responsible for holding reality by force of will. It’s a relief to feel that all I have to do right now is learn what is true, and a reassurance that I’ll be positioned to respond with greater strength once I’ve done that.

A Mantra

For some people, words will just get in the way. If you think you’re one of those, skip this part. But if you’re not sure, give it a try.

Look for a word, phrase, or series of phrases that can be a System 1 handle for your reference experience. You can adopt someone else’s words, or you can compose your own. To me, using the right mantra feels like speaking the True Name of relinquishment.

My general method of finding mantras is this: I imagine a far-future version of myself who lives in Utopia, is vastly more wise and competent than I am right now, and who remembers exactly what it was like to be me. I imagine them coming to me in a moment where I need to make a specific mental motion, as though they’ve traveled back in time to intervene at a key point in my development. Then I imagine the words they speak to me to guide me through the motion.

When I do this for relinquishment, I get, “First know what is true. Work out what to do about it later.” Those words are my mantra.

Some Beliefs For Visualization

The meditation itself consists of a series of visualizations. For the first visualization, you’ll need a belief with no personal significance.

For example, I currently believe that the pencil I tossed in my book bag this morning is yellow. I’m pretty confident of that, but when I imagine reaching into my bag to find that it’s actually pink, it’s no big deal. I feel no hesitation about observing the pencil, no fear or shame or despair, no feeling that things I care about rest on the color of the pencil. I don’t feel betrayed by reality. I just imagine a brief moment of surprise and mild confusion, followed by a guess at why I was wrong, and then an effortless update. All it takes for me to change my belief from “yellow” to “pink” is picking up the pencil and observing its color.

For the second, you’ll need a belief with moderate personal significance, something you care a little about. You could try completing some of these sentences: * I think that , and would be a little unhappy if it turned out that _. * I think that , and it would be uncomfortable to learn that . * I think , and I hope it’s false that . * I feel mild dread at the idea that __.

A good example of this for me is, “I feel mild dread at the idea that I filed the legal documents incorrectly.” It wouldn’t be huge, just annoying because bureaucracy sucks.

You can keep going with this series, finding beliefs that are increasingly dear to you. But I recommend starting with just these two, to get the hang of the meditation itself before adding more difficult content.

Imaginary Counter-Evidence

For each belief, come up with at least one observation you would count as counter-evidence. For “the pencil is yellow”, counter-evidence could be “when I take the pencil from my bag, it looks pink”. For “I filed the legal documents correctly”, counter-evidence could be “I got a letter from the County Clerk saying I did something wrong”, or “I didn’t hear back from the Clerk when I expected to”. It doesn’t have to be decisive, as long as it would cause some part of you to feel that you should update.

For more personally significant beliefs, look for imaginary counter-evidence in the direction of hesitation or fear. Look for regions of thought-space you would prefer to avoid while holding the belief in mind. Look for the thoughts that hurt.

With filing legal documents, I looked in the directions of “something about paperwork that is already in the mail and out of my control”, “something about red ink”, and “something about judges”. Navigating by the experience of avoidance is key to this exercise.

A Word Of Caution

Bear in mind that relinquishment is not the same as updating away from a belief.

Relinquishment is the mental motion that allows you to update away from a belief that you’ve been clinging to stubbornly. A simple Bayes net can update a belief. It takes a far twistier mind, one with a strange human-like relationship to epistemics, to relinquish one. It is possible to relinquish without updating, and in fact part of the goal here is to divorce those two motions.

The virtue cultivated by this meditation is the freedom to change your map when you notice a discrepancy with the territory. But it can go the other way: If clinging and belief are still tightly bound in your mind, then relaxing your grasp may directly cause an update. That would be like changing your map when it already matches the territory.

So when you do begin to progress to more fraught visualizations, I caution against choosing beliefs that are doing a lot of practical work in your life, at least until you have the hang of the associated mental motions. There is some danger here of actually updating away from beliefs you have no reason to think are false. If you notice your betting odds changing drastically during this meditation, back up and work with an easier visualization.

With that, you now have all the parts you need to put this meditation together.


Relinquishment Cultivation

  1. Perform your fixation (breathing, or whatever). Wait until you feel clear and free of distraction.
  2. Play through your first visualization, in vivid detail if possible. In my example, this would mean closing my eyes to imagine reaching into my backpack, searching for a pencil. Then I find the pencil, take it out, and am met with counter-evidence: it seems to be a different color than I expected.
  3. Pay attention to your subtle psychological responses this whole time. First notice what it’s like to expose yourself to the possibility of counter-evidence. Then notice what it’s like to receive it. Seek your reference experience, or the opportunity to create it, in those responses. In my visualization, the pencil I’m looking at is most certainly pink. There’s an unconcerned openness between me and that fact. Learning I was wrong, I completely submitted to alignment with reality, with no wasted motion. That’s the easy freedom that I’m looking for.
  4. When you find it, focus your attention there, as you did earlier with your fixation object, drinking it in. Then, when the feeling of relinquishment is steady and precise, recite your mantra, either aloud or silently. For me: “First know what is true. Work out what to do about it later.” Repeat it a few times, if you like. Feel it in the context of the visualization. Let its meaning wash over you.
  5. When you’re ready, move on to your next visualization.
  6. At the end of your final visualization, let go of the details. Spend some time basking in the abstract experience of relinquishment. That’s the goal of this exercise: to make pure relinquishment familiar and comfortable. Rest there until you feel satisfied.


Some Variations

The version of this meditation I just described is for routine cultivation. It uses beliefs whose truth values you have no reason to doubt, just to get you familiar with holding them loosely. It’s meant to be done regularly, at the point in your routine when it’s time to meditate.

But a slight adjustment makes it good for acute relinquishment as well. It can be part of a trigger-action plan: “If I notice myself clinging to a belief, I will do a relinquishment meditation, using the belief in question for the second [or third] visualization.” If you’ve done the cultivation version many times, you can probably skip the fixation and even the other visualizations, and move straight into relinquishing the belief.

If you can identify the experiences and mental motions that most often obstruct relinquishment, you can make this meditation the second half of a reflex re-training meditation. I’ll talk about reflex re-training meditations later in this series, but I’ve probably hit on most of it already while writing about how to build cognitive trigger-action plans.

You can also adapt this for cultivation of lightness or evenness, since they’re really just different guises of the same capacity.

With lightness, for instance, I’d do variations on the theme of each visualization. I’d imagine the pencil being pink, then green, then purple. I’d imagine it being a pen instead of a pencil. I’d imagine it being absent all together. I’d imagine seeing that it’s pink, then realizing I’m in unusual lighting and it’s actually yellow after all. I’d look for the feeling of dexterity, rather than the feeling of letting go. I’d say to myself, “I follow where reality leads.”

Finally, this meditation could be used in a Crisis Of Faith.


I’d like to close by inviting you to repair this meditation.

The thesis of my first post on meditation design was that different minds benefit from different meditations, and it is worthwhile to find or even create the ones that serve you best given your circumstances.

There is a larger thesis for this whole line of thought and research: If you are interested in systematic personal growth, you should learn how to wield your own mind.

Yes, you should also learn to mine external resources. You should be intellectually gluttonous, because there’s a lot to learn from others, out in the rest of the world. “The eleventh virtue is scholarship.”

But you should also be prepared to face down important problems that have never been identified, let alone solved. One point of disagreement I seem to have with a lot of my community is that such problems are commonplace. It’s not immodest or arrogant to suspect that you’ve found one. One reason for this is that you are the only person who has ever been you, who has ever experienced the intersection of your circumstances and values. When you walk from where you are to where you want to be, you will encounter problems that nobody but you is likely to solve.

And when you do — when you find yourself in a place that lacks roadsigns, or any trail at all to follow — do not wait to be rescued. You may have followed someone else’s directions, and ended up in a place they never imagined could exist. Part of the territory is your mind, you can’t avoid walking through that region, and nobody’s been there but you.

What do you do when nothing you know is enough? When you don’t expect to find an answer outside of yourself no matter how hard you look? When your parents have failed you, your gods are dead, and your tools have shattered in your hand? This is the question that drives me, when I think about meditation.

So if you try the relinquishment cultivation I’ve outlined, it won’t work. Not exactly as I hope. It won’t take you to the same place it takes me, because I’ve never walked through your mind. Don’t wait for someone else to come along and fix it. Ask yourself, “What went wrong? Why exactly did that happen? What could I try instead?”

Out of these broken pieces I’ve offered you, please build something that is new, and whole, and yours.