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Episode 9: Insight

Updated: May 1, 2021

Previous Episode: Professor Vervaeke introduces the Axial Revolution in India and uses Erich Fromm's ideas of the 'having' and the 'being' mode to study Siddhartha's spiritual journey. Our culture generally talks about Mindfulness, most of us have very little understanding of what the 'aidos' of mindfulness is.

In this episode, Professor Vervaeke talks about attention, insight, how they're related to mindfulness practices, and why these practices matter.

How can mindfulness train attention so as to cause more insight?

Michael Polanyi on Attention

Hold a cup, and tap on it with a pen as if you were blind and trying to figure out what exactly the object is. Notice that while you're doing this, your attention is on the cup, through the pen. You can also shift your awareness to the pen (the probe) and be aware of it through your fingers. Similarly, think of how you use your glasses. When you wear your glasses you don't look at them, you look through them into the environment around you. In other words, you are paying attention to the environment through your glasses; you're looking beyond them and by means of them. But you can also shift your awareness, take your glasses off and look at them instead of through them, making them more 'opaque'.

What does this ability to shift between perspectives (looking at something vs looking through something) indicate?

Polanyi's explanation of attention suggests that there's implicit and explicit awareness. We can have explicit awareness of say a table, through our glasses in which case we have implicit awareness of our glasses. But we can also shift our focal or explicit awareness to the glasses and look at them. This is the kind of dynamic restructuring that our attention does all the time. We can be so deeply involved with something that we don't just know it, but we can know through it.

This works for psychotechnologies too. Think of how we so naturally integrate literacy in our cognition. So much so that we rarely ever look at literacy, rather, we look through it. people refer to this metaphorically as 'moving in' and 'out' of their awareness. We can look through our processing out into the world or we can look at our processing.

Our attention also simultaneously goes 'up' from individual features to the overall gestalt and down; from the overall gestalt to individual features. For example, when you ask people to read the following:

They will say that it is 'the cat' even though 'a' and 'h' are written in the same way. When asked why people often say because 'it fits' that way. In order to be able to understand that it 'fits', one must be able to read the individual letter and also read the whole world to disambiguate the letter at the same time. This feature-gestalt flow and scaling up and down of attention is something we do automatically all the time.

So how does this map onto mindfulness practices?

Mindfulness has to do with using awareness to optimize these complex dynamic processes. Meditation means moving toward the center. When people are trained during Vipassana, they are told to pay attention to their breath, to their feelings and sensations. So there's a 'stepping back'. Notice how we don't usually pay attention to our sensations but through our sensations to the world. Meditation involves looking at our sensations, feelings, and perception.

Why does this help cultivate insight?

Meditative and contemplative practices are not the same thing. Meditation means moving toward the center, moving inwards, or scaling-down. Contemplation involves moving outwards or scaling up.

Professor Vervaeke learned three things in an integrated fashion --- vipassana (a scaling down strategy), meta (scaling-up strategy), and tai chi (flowing in and out in a dynamic and optimizing fashion).

Learning the three together is important because they form a system of psychotechnologies that optimize cognition for insight.

Think of misframing in the 9 dot problem (refer to episode 1). Instead of thinking 'out of the box' (even when they are explicitly told to do so), people automatically project a square on the dots. They unconsciously make it a 'connect the dots' problem and non-dot turns are impossible in their mind; they don't see a solution. They're unable to break out of their categorical framing.

Deautimising cognition and breaking out of inappropriate framing (or the gestalt) so is a crucial component of insight. This often involves bringing unconscious material into consciousness by doing a transparency-opacity shift. Normally we sense through our perception/our probe. But we can shift our awareness so that we can become aware of it. Scaling-down helps break up the chunks and the gestalt and de-automatize cognition.

But another aspect of insight also involves coming up with an alternative and better frame. So we also have to be able to widen our awareness and alter what we find relevant. We have to be able to look more deeply and in broader patterns. In order to make a new frame, we also have to scale-up. There is a lot of independent (having nothing to do with mindfulness and meditation) scientific evidence that people's ability for insight improves if they have been trained or are naturally predisposed to scale-up. For example, when a picture is completely out of focus people who have a better capacity for insight are able to refocus the picture automatically. When people are able to scale-up better, they are better at solving insight problems.

However, there needs to be a balance between the two. Because if you only scale up, you're 'locked' to that pattern in a sense, you can't see anything beyond it (like in the 9 dot problem). Similarly, if you only scale down you can become overly fixated on individual features and forget gestalt and the bigger picture.

That's why it's important to be trained in both these skills (opponent processing) so as to be able to get the right degree of attentional engagement that is most dynamically fitted to reality.

Mindfulness helps us train our attentional scaling so that we can improve our capacity for insight.

How does ‘being present’ make you more insightful?

If you were to keep scaling-down during meditative practice, you are likely to experience what Forman calls a pure consciousness event. During meditation you practice looking at your mind, then the subsidiary layer of your mind, and so on until you're not conscious but you are fully present as consciousness (pce).

If you did the opposite and kept scaling up (contemplative practices) you'd see that everything is interconnected and 'flowing', like a gestalt that includes you in it. It's a deep state of oneness with everything around you.

The third (ideal) state involves experiencing both a PCE and a state of oneness at the same time. This is where your awareness is at the depths of your consciousness and into the depths of reality at the same time. This is a state of non-duality, called prajna. This is what leads to a comprehensive capacity for insight into one's existential mode of being. This is likely what the Buddha experienced through his practice of vipassana and a contemplative practice called meta. One of his great innovations was to combine the two together.

After he experiences enlightenment, people notice how he just radiates grace, energy, and intelligibility. When they ask him what happened he says 'I am awake.'

This matters today because of how curious we are about altered states of consciousness. Think of why we're going through a mindfulness revolution or why psychedelics are becoming increasingly important in therapy. In fact, human beings are not the only creatures to pursue altered states of consciousness. Cognitive tests suggest that the more intelligent a creature is, the more likely it is to pursue an altered state of consciousness. Caledonian crows for example tumbledown rooftops in order to make themselves dizzy.

Why is it that some of these altered states and mystical experiences afford people powerful transformations?

Think about Siddhartha's metaphor of awakening --- 'waking up.' 'Waking up' here is in contrast to dreaming --- to being asleep. When you're dreaming you think that that's what is real; it's only when you wake up and interact with the world that you realize that it was a dream. Similarly, when a drunk person sobers up, they understand that what they experienced was not 'real'. But sometimes people have certain altered states of consciousness and experiences in which exactly the opposite occurs. They go into that state, come back and say that what they experienced was more real. There's a sense that what they experienced was 'higher' than what we experience on an everyday basis and that what we experience is the 'echoes and shadows' version of reality (in reference to Plato's cave). Because of one's desire to then be in contact with what is 'more real' a self-transformation begins so that one is able to change oneself and one's reality (sati) what it was like to live in greater contact with reality. The agent-arena relationship often gets radically restructured after such experiences.

This is important to understand what happened to Siddhartha. Most of the world religions that emerged from the axial revolution are predicated on the idea that there are higher states of consciousness that should empower, challenge, and encourage us to engage ourselves in such quantum transformations. This transformation is the experience of satori in Buddhism, moksha in Vedanta, and realizing the dao in Daoism. All the world traditions point towards these higher states of consciousness; they appear to be universal. In other words both qualitatively (historically) and quantitatively (scientifically) higher states of consciousness seem to be an important phenomenon.

People who have higher states of consciousness and have undergone deep transformational experiences reliably report an increase in their meaning of life. There appear to be deep connections between awakening, recovering meaning, and insight.

So if these mystical experiences are so important, what is at the core of these higher states of concsiounses? How do psychedelics fit into the picture? And what is the kind of 'knowing' that occurs during these higher states of consciousness?

We'll explore these questions in Episode 10 of Professor Vervaeke's Meaning Crisis series.

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