Comments on “Meaningness as a liberating practice”

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Principles and method

Toby 2016-10-19

(This is prompted by your recent tweet re. teaching).

At the top of this page you say this book is a practical manual and offers specific antidotes for particular confusions. But aside from saying that the main method is to become familiar with stances and notice them, that seems to be it – at least for now.

So, a question. Is this whole project (thank you again, it’s great) a purely intellectual framework so to speak, with ‘antidotes’ essentially meaning “understanding the principles”?

Or do you envisage there being a method (exercises, meditations, or whatever) to help these insights become more grounded in one’s day-to-day life? Is that something you’re thinking about?

I realise that Meaningness, as it is, is an enormous undertaking and you only have so much time. But if you do have ideas for exercises, stuff to do, things to try out – however ill-formed, undeveloped or rudimentary – I’d be fascinated to hear them. Vague ideas, suggestions, whatever. I feel like I’ve got the gist of the overall approach. And whilst I continue to be fascinated by your further explanations of the principles, social/historical context etc., what would suit me is ways of doing something with it.

To emphasise, I’m not looking for a Teacher with a capital T, or a System with a capital S. I’ve been there, done that, don’t need it any more.

I’m just really intrigued about any ideas you might have about experimenting with this stuff, in a more ‘applied’ way. And if it makes you feel better, I’ll sign any consent forms you need me to. ☺

Teaching: the five factors

David Chapman 2016-10-19

Thank you Toby, these are good, hard questions. I don’t have good answers… but I’m working on it.

As you say, this is a fantastically vast project that (realistically) I can never complete—unless I get much more time to work on it, and probably not even then. However, while I’ve had much less time to work on it than I expected, during the past several years, circumstances may be improving. I’ve written more in the past few months than I had in years. (Not all that is published yet.)

I know that you have a background in Vajrayana, as I do, and there’s obvious connections between that and this. And Vajrayana is all about methods—much more so than about theory—so, yeah, I do want to present more concrete practices.

According to Vajrayana theory, five factors (“certainties”) are required for teaching to occur. The topic, the time, the place, the students, and the teacher—all have to be right for effective teaching to occur.

I reluctantly concluded a few years ago that the five factors are not now in place for Vajrayana itself. I don’t see a way forward for it—which is why I abandoned “reinventing Buddhist tantra.” It’s an extremely interesting project for me personally, but that’s not helpful if the other factors aren’t right. The time is not right, there are no suitable students, and I’m not a competent teacher for that material.

In some sense, Meaningness is disguised secularized Vajrayana. Is there some way to bring the five factors together for it? I’m unsure. Unlike actually Vajrayana, I do think the topic and time are right for Meaningness. Place can probably be worked out. So then the question is: is there a suitable group of students, and am I capable of teaching, and can we connect effectively? That remains to be seen.

My current best guess is that “meta-rationality” is the way of presenting this material that is most likely to connect with a suitable audience. So I’m developing the possibility of a “meta-rational training curriculum.” Whether that will go anywhere, I don’t yet know! It will certainly have specific methods and exercises—but they will be intended for people with advanced degrees in STEM disciplines. That’s quite a limited audience—although perhaps a highly influential one.

My original intent with Meaningness was to make it highly accessible to a very broad audience. I wrote the early pages in the simplest, clearest way I could. That was a very interesting exercise for me—but a huge amount of work, which was one reason progress on the book has been so slow.

I’ve backed away from that, starting about a year ago. I fear I do not have time for it. The pages I’ve written in the past year use long words and sometimes assume knowledge of difficult concepts, or the ability to pick them up with only a skeleton explanation. Quite a different style.

So… tentatively I do intend to start teaching, in some highly unconventional format—if I continue to have time. It probably won’t work, at first, or maybe ever. I’ll need to try a variety of experimental approaches and presentations to see if I can find something that works—that connects with some audience effectively.

Basically I have only one thing to say: nebulosity and pattern (form and emptiness) are not separable. I can try to say that in a lot of different ways, and eventually maybe one of them will make sense to someone!

In the mean time… I’m sorry, I’ve completely failed to answer your question: where are the methods? There is one explicit exercise in my second-most-recent page—but it doesn’t go far! And there are a few other little ones like that scattered through the book. Eventually I hope there will be many more—but considering how slowly this project goes, I can’t promise anything soon.

Thanks for the lengthy reply,

Toby 2016-10-20

Thanks for the lengthy reply, David.

First off, I should say that all your work has already benefited me hugely. Specifically:

  1. Explaining the interplay between Buddhism and Western philosophical ideas,

  2. Exploring the possibilities of reinventing vajrayana for the 21st century, and

  3. Re-formulating central Buddhist concepts in entirely non-Buddhist terms.

(Also not to be underestimated is your ability to present all kinds of complex ideas in super-clear language).

Coming from my Buddhist background, and with a healthy respect for the tradition, this has all blown my mind, man – in a good way. It’s helped me significantly reorientate my understanding, but also, in some way (Danger of Self-Delusion alert) my attitude to all these ideas, my own training experience, what’s possible etc.

So you’ve already provided a huge amount and I’m very grateful. Anyhow, you threw out the bait about teaching, and I couldn’t help but grab it – and went back to the hints about methods here on this page.

I did assume that any teaching you might do would be for the super-smart STEM crowd. I know your idea about a calculus selection test was a joke, but I suspected there was a truth in there too. Anyway, I’m about as far from a STEM PhD as you can get. No worries. If your teaching does get off the ground, I just hope whoever you end up with bloody appreciates it!

Yes, the ideological Turing Test is interesting. I feel like I’ve been doing versions of that in all sorts of situations in my life – whether negotiating issues in relationships, managing office politics or whatever. Staying calm, being empathetic, trying to fully inhabit the other person’s point of view and embody their language, whilst gently introducing a ‘foreign element’ to them in their own terms. Something like that. And the ITT is something I could probably benefit from by doing more systematically i.e as a practice, rather than just when a tricky situation arises. Plus, I’m very concerned about the fraught political/social situation, and these kind of methods seem essential if we’re going to emerge out the other side without some major breakdown.

Also in terms of methods/training practices, I find one of the most rewarding things to be simply: “Try new and (manageably) uncomfortable challenges”. Life has a habit of throwing those up anyway. And when it doesn’t, I can (sometimes) push myself into something new. But I do also have some kind of hankering for (a) a slightly more ‘objective’ way of orientating myself towards these projects, and (b) some other people to share the experience/orientation with. Maybe I should set up a Meaningness support group for People with Ordinary Brains. (POBs goes quite nicely with MOPs, doesn’t it?)

In the meantime, I’ll continue to pursue threads and ideas that you’ve raised here. So much interesting stuff. Next on my list is one of Kegan’s books. I do have some questions about the five stages – in particular about the relationship between systematic (and meta-systematic) understanding and emotions. But I’ll read the book first and then maybe pose you some questions when I’ve digested it.

Thanks again. Keep up the great work.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Daniel Or 2016-12-13

Hi David!

First, thank you for sharing this book and metablog! I’ve enjoyed reading it a lot.

Regarding the similar methods listed on this page, have you ever looked into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

Here’s a link to one of the main textbooks, and here’s a link to an introductory podcast.

The third episode of the podcast places ACT within the context of contemporary psychology pretty well.


David Chapman 2016-12-13

Thanks! Yes, I’ve read a little about ACT, but not learned about it in any depth.

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