Chasing your tail

Warning: thought dump ahead!

Attachment to the outcome of an event leads to a subjective spectrum of measurements of the (usually implicit) metrics that you are using to monitor apparent change. Your preferences about which direction you want these metrics to go in seems to be how the attachment presents itself.

Thinking of ways to game this, let’s explore a few strategies and see what happens.

At one extreme, you could take the position “I have no preferences”. This is kind of self-contradicting since this is a preference in itself. A step further could be to have no preference for having preferences. Huh?

Is it possible to have no preferences? Let’s look at the word “preference” first, starting with a dictionary definition:

a greater liking for one alternative over another or others

We need to go deeper down the rabbit hole. What does “liking” mean? Back to the dictionary…

a feeling of regard or fondness

This is not really helping, we are just arriving at more words that are not objectively defined. Hmm.

Let’s use the facts. To have a preference, we have to have at least two possibilities. We could say that the word preference is a kind of directionality or scoring system for the possible outcomes.

Alright, so one strategy is to weight the scores equally for all outcomes. I can see a few problems with that. As before, this strategy (and perhaps any strategy?) is a kind of preference. By choosing a scoring system, you have weighted that system above all others.

Is it possible to not choose a scoring system? Perhaps…

Certainly, it is possible to not explicitly choose a system. But it seems as if there is always going to be an implicit system in place. Without preference, it would not take long before you got run over by a truck because you did not have a preference for the outcome of crossing the road!

Alright, so it looks like there are going to be at least a handful of fundamental preferences that anyone reading this is going to have. First and foremost would be the self-preservation instinct.

Another way we can look at this is to inspect the “at least two possibilities” bit. What if there were only one possibility? In that case, there would be no preference because there is no choice about what to have a preference for.

So, how could there be only one possibility? Well, I suppose the only way to do that would be to not distinguish between outcomes. The phrase “whatever happens, happens” comes to mind.

Of course, you could argue that the model of not distinguishing between outcomes is a kind of scoring system in itself. In a way, it is isomorphic to the perspective of equally weighting all possible outcomes. Nonetheless, it certainly sounds like a simpler way of framing things.

To not distinguish between outcomes would be something like the absence of chopping and categorising things up. Lack of labelling. A willingness to not know and not understand.

How far could you take this? I think this approach leads to the experience of a lack of agency. By agency, I mean the impression that you have control over the outcome of events. If you have stopped distinguishing between outcomes, it seems that you would also have stopped getting the impression that you were influencing those outcomes.

The suggestion that lack of agency is even possible can be a scary thought for some people. I think this is perhaps tied to the fear of losing control, identity, self, ego, whatever you want to call it.

So, then what? I think the end game is that, with this approach, you retain a fresh sense of wonder about each and every moment as it unfolds. Unsure what to expect and untied to what happens. The most appropriate word that comes to mind is “freedom”.

Why meditate?

This question came up recently and I did not give a great answer. The following post aims to provide an answer that hopefully clarifies rather than confuses.

First, let’s set some context. I have explored a number of different meditation approaches and philosophies, with my current focus predominantly on a technique used in the Sōtō lineage of Zen Buddhism. This post will talk mainly about that technique, which is called Shikantaza.

The reason this question is hard is that in truth I do not know the answer. I fell into becoming interested in this stuff some time ago and that interest has not dwindled much since.

Today, lots of traditional Eastern philosophy has started to creep into the Western world. For example, this has manifested the popularization of techniques such as mindfulness. The way these ideas are typically sold to a Western audience is to suggest possible benefits such as “do this and you will be calmer” or “do that and you will have fewer negative thoughts”.

If you go into a meditation practice with the intention to achieve these kinds of goals, then you are enacting a form of spiritual materialism. This means using the spiritual path to achieve material gains. You may even succeed! It is true that people will likely see these kinds of material benefits.

In comparison, the typical intention behind a practice such as Shikantaza is to see clearly what is already there, rather than trying to create something different.

So, what is Shikantaza? Quite simply, it is the practice of “just sitting”. Hold the body still and watch what continues to move. What this results in for most people initially is a flurry of thoughts they did not even know they had. The idea is to just observe. Don’t chase. Don’t reject. Don’t ignore. Mmm doughnuts…

Right, but why would you want to do that? This is the funny bit, you probably do not want to do that at all! All the typical markers that the ego uses to measure “progress” are missing. You could get bored. Your joints might hurt. You will lose time that could have been spent elsewhere. Your friends might say you will turn into a vegetable!

The will to do this goes beyond the ego mind, from a more fundamental urge to see what this is, to see what you are and how things function.

Upon investigation, the realisation that typically follows is along the lines of “this is all there is”. This could be spontaneous or it could take decades or it may never happen at all. Or you might say “screw this, I’m gonna go watch TV!”.

Pinning down a description of what I am trying to point to here is super hard. Many have tried over the years and in my experience, it does not help much. Any words I use might make sense to me and mean nothing to you. If you are interested, I would encourage you to find out for yourself. Don’t accept, reject or ignore anything I am talking about. Consider it, and see how it fits into how things work for you.

So, why meditate? I suppose it depends on what you are looking for. In my case, curiosity is the main driver.

It is clear to me that there are pieces missing in the way we are typically educated. In our society, from a young age, we are taught the philosophy of reductionist materialism, which is typically accepted without question. I am exploring those questions now.

PS: I’m always happy to speak more about this kind of stuff. Send any questions you have my way!