Stabilizing the complete stance

Workers on a bamboo scaffolding
Photo courtesy CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Difficult to attain, easy to maintain

We slide into confused stances effortlessly, often without even noticing. They are unstable, though: as soon as it becomes obvious that one is wrong, we switch to another. Even if we commit to one, perhaps as part of an ideological system, we find they are difficult to maintain. They collide with reality often enough that stabilizing them requires great effort.

The complete stance tends the opposite way: it is difficult to attain, but with practice becomes relatively easy to maintain.1Obstacles to the complete stance” explained several reasons it is difficult to attain, access, or adopt.

However, once you become familiar with the complete stance, it is relatively easy to maintain, because it is accurate. Unlike the confused stances, experience does not contradict it.

Put another way, we adopt the confused stances mainly because they seem the only ones available. In each particular situation, we choose the least bad one, despite our being more-or-less aware of its defects. Once the complete stance becomes accessible, confusions seem decreasingly attractive.

What does it mean to stabilize the complete stance?

The complete stance is a stance, meaning that it’s an attitude and mode of activity one adopts in response to a specific problem of meaningness as it arises. Like other stances, it’s typically transient and may go unnoticed. It is not a permanent accomplishment, once and done.

To stabilize a stance means putting in place structures and strategies that support your commitment to it by making it easier to maintain.

This page largely reviews the book’s introductory explanation of how confused and complete stances work. Now you can understand the same material more deeply, having worked through detailed explanations of the dynamics of some specific confused stances: eternalism and nihilism.

For example, you’ve read how we stabilize eternalism and nihilism using eternalist ploys or nihilist evasions. You’ve also read about ways specific antidotes and counter-thoughts can destabilize those strategies.

Stabilizing completion through understanding, rejecting, and destabilizing confusions

Confused stances rest on metaphysical errors; complete stances resolve them. In the case of eternalism and nihilism, the error is the shared mistaken belief that only fixed meanings could be real. Clear conceptual understanding of how and why this is wrong, and of its harmful consequences, stabilizes the complete stance. Once you accept that it is wrong, you can explicitly commit to the complete stance, and reject its alternatives.

This conceptual understanding and commitment could be mere philosophical theory, however, lacking practical effect. Translating understanding into changes in your way of being requires experiential familiarity with stance dynamics: their characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. It also requires enough practice in applying the concepts that it becomes habitual.

Eternalism, nihilism, and the complete stance are all mutually exclusive. Any reason to adopt one is reason to reject the other two. Therefore, all the antidotes that destabilize eternalism and nihilism are methods for stabilizing the complete stance.2 This is true particularly inasmuch as the complete stance can be defined simply as “refraining from both eternalism and nihilism.”

Practical understanding of confused stances means involves familiarity with their characteristic thoughts—the ploys and evasions—and skill in deploying the counter-thoughts. It means recognizing the sale pitches, noticing how you get sucked in by their emotional promises, and knowing how to decline them: reminding yourself they cannot deliver. It means learning their textures of activity: the self-blinded destructive rampages of armed eternalism and nihilistic rage, for example.

Stabilizing completion through familiarity with stance transitions

Familiarity with the patterns of transition between stages builds on familiarity with individual ones. In “Stances are unstable” and “Exiting eternalism” I gave examples.

One observes the recurring patterns of shifts from one unstable stance to the next. What triggers these changes? Generically, one slides out of a stance when it stops making sense of a situation, and another becomes available as an alternative. Doing meaning better—the main part of Meaningness—explains this, for many different stance pairs, in as much detail as seems feasible. However, noticing these patterns in a specific situation takes practice. Also, everyone’s patterns are somewhat different, according to habit and personality.

As you gain familiarity with how this goes, you can intervene at each point, and nudge yourself toward the complete stance, rather than sliding around among confused ones. Eventually, you may gain understanding of the full web of possible transitions. You quickly recognize moments at which a confused stance becomes unstable because it stops making sense of a situation, and what antidote to apply. You also recognize moments at which the complete stance becomes unstable—usually because it points to unwelcome nebulosity—and you know what to do to stabilize it.3

Simply noticing that you feel confused, and remembering that the complete stance is a better alternative, is often all that is needed.

Noticing and maintaining the complete stance

The complete stance is quite natural, and everyone occasionally adopts it, briefly, usually without noticing.

It is not a special state of consciousness.4 There are feelings that typically accompany it, but they are not dramatically distinctive. They may accompany other stances as well. This makes it hard to recognize.

“Have I already adopted the complete stance in this situation?” is a good question to ask.

If, on consideration, the answers are both “no,” then you have indeed already adopted the complete stance.

Finding the complete stance repeatedly, and then paying attention to the thoughts, feelings, and activity that accompany it, stabilizes it. That is, familiarity makes it easier to maintain in the face of temptations to drop into confusion.

Textures of complete activity” describes what the complete stance is like. You can use these descriptions as methods: are things going like that now? How can I nudge them more in that direction?

Stabilizing the complete stance through commitment and practice

If you understand conceptually how the complete stance is accurate, and find its benefits attractive, you may choose to commit to it. Then you will find yourself wavering: you cannot always maintain the stance, despite good intentions. Sometimes you will catch yourself having wandered off into eternalism or nihilism, or some Lite version of them, for a while. Perhaps moments; perhaps months.

The antidote to wavering commitment to the complete stance is: wavering commitment to the complete stance. That is, increasing stability comes with practice. Commitment to any stance—an enduring determination to adopt it whenever it may be relevant—is a powerful method for stabilization. You put effort into maintaining it, and develop skill at strategies for doing so.

The usual way to commit to a stance is indirectly, by committing to a system. Systems are easier to commit to because there’s more structure and narrative detail to latch onto. A competent system also comes with powerful stabilization tricks. For example, committing to Christianity provides you with numerous methods for maintaining eternalism. They include thoughts such as recollecting points of a catechism; feelings such as fear, love, or trust in God; and activities such as participation in the sacramental rites.

Systems are not available for stabilizing the complete stance.5 So, for now at least, we can only commit directly to the stance itself.

Meaningness provides a somewhat systematic presentation, but is far short of a full-blown system such as a religion or political ideology. Perhaps one would be impossible, because systems generally fixate distinctions, and the complete stance rejects that. Any presentation must be somewhat nebulous, because the subject matter is, in part, nebulosity itself.6 A detailed presentation of the complete stance is also difficult because it is so abstract and general. Complete stances, plural, for particular dimensions of meaningness, are more specific, so there is more to say. (Coming up!)

Accomplishing the complete stance

I wrote above that the complete stance is typically transient, and not a permanent accomplishment. Nevertheless, it might be possible to accomplish it, meaning you always adopt it. (Or nearly always!)

Accomplishment might make you remarkably effective at resolving problems of meaningness—for yourself, and for others. You might seem capable of meaningness-wizardry, conjuring practical solutions with possibilities few would have noticed.

It may be worth aspiring to this!

On the other hand, it might make the stance seem out of reach, which could be discouraging. That could make commitment more difficult. Stabilizing the complete stance is a gradual process; wavering is inevitable. Expect progress over months and years, not days and weeks. (Sometimes sudden breakthroughs are possible, though!)

  1. 1.I’ve borrowed this rhyme from informal teaching by Ngak’chang Rinpoche on the relationship between two meditative states. Those are not parallel to confusion vs. completion, though, so the details aren’t relevant.
  2. 2.We previewed this in “Stances are unstable” and “Exiting eternalism.”
  3. 3.Here we are reviewing the “main method” described in “Meaningness as a liberating practice.” There’s a more detailed version coming up!
  4. 4.The complete stance is structurally parallel to to some interpretations of “enlightenment” in Buddhism that might be described as extraordinary states of awareness. It is not such a state, or any sort of state at all; and it is experientially unremarkable.
  5. 5.The Further Reading Appendix mentions some systems that “rhyme” with the complete stance. However, they don’t squarely address or deliberately support it. Also, they’re all weird and difficult, and won’t be attractive or accessible for most people.
  6. 6.And, in fact, the “rhyming systems” I mentioned in the footnote above—Dzogchen, existential phenomenology, ethnomethodology— are each notoriously nebulous, apparently due to their engagement with nebulosity.