The following transcript is of this podcast episode. Enjoy!
Michael: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for modern mutants interested in mindfulness, meditation, awakening, and more. My name is Michael Taft. I’m a mindfulness coach, a meditation teacher, and an author, and I’ll be your host on this podcast. This is the second in a series of conversations with my friend and fellow meditation teacher, Kenneth Folk. We introduced Kenneth in the first session, but if you want to learn more about Kenneth, you can do that at KennethFolkDharma.com.
In the first session, Kenneth and I discussed what it means to be mindful. In this second program, we look at suffering machines, ways to suspend the necessary conditions for suffering, Sarah Connor in The Terminator, state chasing, getting the cosmic joke, and a whole bunch of other interesting stuff. This is exactly the kind of material I was hoping Kenneth and I would get to in our talks together, and we definitely go there here. One note of warning: if you haven’t seen the TV series Westworld, we talk about one of the big reveals at the end of season one, so spoiler alert – don’t say I didn’t warn you.
So here we go with session two, entitled The Cosmic Joke.
Michael: Hey, Kenneth.
Kenneth: Good morning, Michael.
Michael: Hey. So what do you have to talk about today?
Kenneth: I have something that I’m very excited about talking today, and it is riffing off of Thomas Metzinger’s understanding of what it would take for a machine, an artificial intelligence, to suffer. And I know that you know Thomas Metzinger and have spent quality time with him, in addition to have studied his work, so I think this is going to be a fun discussion.
Michael: It sounds like it. So for those of you who don’t know, Thomas Metzinger is a German philosopher at the University of Mainz in Germany. Really amazingly brilliant and fun human being who has written a book called Being No One, which is probably the best text ever conceived about the philosophical and scientific and neurological basis of what it means to have an ego. He also wrote a much easier to understand book called The Ego Tunnel. So both Kenneth and I have hung out with Thomas quite a bit, so that’s the background.
Kenneth: Okay. Now, Metzinger has a short article on The Edge and the discussion is about thinking machines – can machines think? Can machines be taught to think? And the subtitle of this particular article is, “What if they could suffer?” And so he sets up the conditions, the necessary conditions for a machine to suffer, and I think that we’ll find this is very relevant to us as humans.
Michael: So what does he say are the necessary conditions?
Kenneth: Okay, there are four, and I’m going to riff on Metzinger and make it a little more accessible – with apologies to everyone for that, but I think it’ll work. So let’s see. We’re going to use a mnemonic device, and we’re going to tie it into an AI, which is the Terminator. The Terminator, in the first movie, was coming from the future – correct me if I’m wrong – to save a woman named Sarah Connor, because Sarah Connor was going to give birth, some time in the future, to the savior of humankind.
Michael: She comes back to…
Kenneth: Oh, I did that wrong. I did that wrong, because the Terminator was there to kill Sarah Connor.
Michael: Yes, that’s correct.
Kenneth: Got it. Okay, thanks. So Connor is the name we’re after here, except we’re going to simplify the spelling: it’s CONR. And those letters are going to stand for each of the four necessary conditions for suffering, beginning with C, consciousness. Consciousness is prerequisite to suffering. So, for example, a rock is not conscious, and it doesn’t suffer. And I, when I am deeply anesthetized, or in deep, dreamless sleep at night, don’t suffer. I can’t suffer. So consciousness is something that we would need to suffer. That’s number one, C. The next one, the second one, is ownership, so O. Thomas Metzinger talks about a phenomenal self model, but the important aspect for our purposes is ownership. I have to be able to own this experience in order to suffer. So an example of this would be – let’s see – an example of not suffering and not owning it: I can watch films of battles where people are being shot, and there’s a certain amount of vicarious pain in that through empathy, but the truth is it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I would imagine it would be like to actually be shot. I don’t own that suffering.
Michael: It’s somebody else’s suffering.
Kenneth: It’s somebody else’s. So if I can conceive of myself as an entity who can either own or not own the suffering, I have a phenomenal self model, and that’s a necessary precondition.
Michael: Got it.
Kenneth: So we have C and O.
Michael: Consciousness and ownership.
Kenneth: Now, N, the third letter in CONR, is negative valence according to Metzinger. So what does that mean? Well, it means something that feels bad or hurts.
Michael: Yeah, it feels bad.
Kenneth: When I’m eating ice cream, it feels good, so you could say there isn’t any suffering in that – I’m just feeling good. By the way, we’re not talking about suffering as a translation of dukkha right now. Dukkha has a very specific definition. We’re talking about plain old ordinary English language use of the word suffering.
Michael: Got it.
Kenneth: So it has to feel bad to suffer. If you can imagine a creature or being that only feels good all the time, well, it doesn’t suffer – and this is, by the way, covered in Buddhism with the stories about gods, devas and brahmas, that live their entire lives with pleasure, so there’s no suffering there. So that’s N.
Michael: And we don’t find animals that don’t have negative valence on the earth, because any such creatures long ago died out. We need to have negative valence, bad feelings, in order to survive.
Kenneth: That makes sense. Just can you say a little more about why that’s so important to survive as a creature?
Michael: Well, it’s really interesting, you know. Pain is – let’s just talk about pain. Pain is a signal that something is amiss, and it’s a really important signal to facilitate survival of an organism. So you want to know, for example, if you’ve accidentally punctured your leg and the blood is running out. If it didn’t hurt, you could be in a situation where you didn’t even know that was happening. I remember one time as a kid having shots from the dentist in my mouth, and my mouth was so numb that I came home from the dentist, I walked home, and my mom was like, “Ahhhhh!” She was yelling, and it turned out that I had chewed my lip to the point of bleeding because I just didn’t know it hurt. So animals need this signal that something’s amiss, and if you don’t have it, it’s quite dangerous. In fact, without going too far into it, there is a genetic condition for certain humans that literally physiologically are incapable of feeling pain, and they rarely live past childhood, early childhood, because it’s just too easy to break your bones and cut yourself, and it turns out they can’t even sweat because the signal of overheating is a kind of slight discomfort. So it’s really important in evolution.
Kenneth: That’s fantastic. So here we have on the one hand negative valence as something that is required for living creatures to even survive, and on the other hand, it’s one of the four necessary conditions for suffering. This is wonderful. Okay, now we’ve got C, which is consciousness; we have O, ownership; and we have N, negative valence, which means something that feels bad. And then the fourth and final condition is R, and we’re going to call this realness. In Thomas Metzinger’s language, in philosophical language, he calls this transparency, but that’s a technical term that’s not going to work very well for a lay audience. It’s realness – this has to feel real to me. You can contrast the feeling of realness with unreality. For example, sometimes in a dream – I think most of us have had an experience in a dream where something is happening that would normally be a very bad thing: you’re being, I don’t know, chewed up by monsters. But it doesn’t actually hurt. It doesn’t feel real. And there’s some little part of you saying, “Well, this is odd,” actually bemused by it. “Well, this is interesting. Here this body seems to be compromised or being punished in some way, and yet, I don’t feel bad.” So that’s a situation where things don’t feel real.
In order to suffer, we have to take at face value that something is real, in order to suffer about it. And this happens to us all the time. I can talk about this as being unreal in some intellectual way, but the truth is, it feels like it’s real. It feels like I’m sitting in this chair. I can feel this body. I can feel the parts of it that are pleasant and unpleasant. It feels real. And if it does, I can suffer. So we have to have all four of those things. We have to have CONR – we have to have C which is consciousness, O – ownership, N – negative valence, and R – realness. And from here, after I give you a chance to comment on this, Michael, I want to walk back through it and talk about interventions for suffering based on suspending one of those at a time.
Michael: Yeah, that’s the first thing that occurs to me in this formulation, that if you need all four of them, it’s interesting to begin to speculate which one of those you can suspend. Presumably if they’re all necessary, you only need to suspend or intervene with one of them and suddenly the suffering stops. Just an example that comes to mind right away is the first one, consciousness. I think we’ve all had the experience of some kind of emotional suffering or even physical suffering that we’re enduring and it’s very unpleasant, and then we go to sleep, and while we’re asleep – especially in deep sleep; let’s just say that’s total unconsciousness – you’re just not aware that there’s any suffering, right? It’s just the bliss, the oblivion of sleep wipes out any sense that during that time you were a suffering being. So right away, that leaps to mind.
Kenneth: Yes, that’s perfect. That’s exactly where this goes. So if we say one at a time we’re going to step through, we’re going to say, “How could we suspend just one at a time of these necessary conditions for suffering?” Because that’s all it would take. In any moment that one of these four things – CONR – is suspended, there will by definition be no suffering. And as you say, the example that all of us can easily relate to is almost every night going to sleep, and for some part of that sleeping, you’re not dreaming, you’re not conscious in any way, you’re out like a rock. And if you never woke up, you wouldn’t know the difference.
Michael: That’s right.
Kenneth: So suffering is certainly suspended in that moment by this definition of suffering. And interestingly, various contemplative traditions teach you to train the mind in various ways to achieve unconsciousness. As odd as that may seem to some, I would argue that in Theravāda Buddhism one of the main interpretations of nirvāṇa or nibbāna in Pali is “out like a light” – complete unconsciousness. You have exactly the same consciousness as a rock, which is to say none. And there is no suffering in that situation.
Michael: That’s right. And “out like a light” is even the literal translation of nibbāna. And I would also add in that the Hindu concept of nirvikalpa is something along the same lines – some kind of total blackout, at least for a moment.
Kenneth: Yes. And in the Mahasi tradition of Burmese Theravāda Buddhism they teach you to access a blackout. They equate that with nibbāna. They say that is nibbāna or nirvāṇa. And they call it cessation. That’s another thing that’s called, or nirodha. And it’s a highly revered condition. I’m hesitating to call it a state because I imagine that might require someone to have that state, and here we just have non-experience.
Michael: But we could say that it’s a state of the organism.
Kenneth: Okay, yes. It’s a state of the organism of complete and utter unconsciousness. Now, this leads into a really interesting discussion about nirvāṇa and about popular ideas of what nirvāṇa is. I’m going to return to the rest of the conditions for suffering in a minute, but let’s take a little side trip here and talk about nirvāṇa.
Michael: Yeah, let’s talk about nirvāṇa. And remember, for those who don’t know, that nirvāṇa is the Sanskrit way of saying nibbāna, so they’re identical terms.
Kenneth: Okay. Yes. So nirvāṇa or nibbāna, it’s almost universally misunderstood as something I’m going to like.
Michael: “It’s heaven!”
Kenneth: It’s heaven. So those of us who are immersed in Christian culture will naturally superimpose our ideas of heaven onto nirvāṇa.
Michael: And I would contend that it’s not just Christian culture that does that, but even popular Asian Buddhist culture seems to feel that nibbāna or nirvāṇa is a nice place.
Kenneth: Right. And this is surprisingly hard to counter. If someone has that idea, you can tell them, “Well, no, I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s meant by the word nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa is lights out,” and they will naturally then think, “Oh, well, lights out in some way that I’m not really there, but some essence that is the real essence of me is there and liking it.”
Michael: There’s an awareness of how wonderful the blanked-out-ness is or something like that.
Kenneth: Right, there’s an awareness – maybe there’s some union with Brahman or union with Godhead that is somehow aware of how wonderful it is that I’m blanked out. But that isn’t what it means. It means you’re just as out as you are when you go to sleep at night and don’t dream. And in fact there’s a really cool story that Sayadaw U Pandita tells in his book, In This Very Life, about the sleeping millionaire, which illustrates this really well.
Michael: Tell us that story, Kenneth.
Kenneth: Okay. So the sleeping millionaire, you imagine this guy – let’s call him a billionaire, because millionaires are no big deal nowadays. So the sleeping billionaire…
Michael: Presumably this billionaire invested early in Bitcoin.
Kenneth: [laughs] Yes, and now he’s cashed in. So at the beginning of the story, he instructs his servants to prepare a great feast and invite all of his friends over for dinner. Then the billionaire goes up to his room and takes a nap. Now, while the billionaire is sleeping, the servants prepare this wonderful meal with all the billionaire’s favorite foods, and invite all of his friends over. At some point the main servant comes up, wakes up the sleeping billionaire, and says, “It’s time! We’ve prepared your favorite foods and all your favorite friends are here.” What do you imagine the billionaire’s reaction is upon being woken up?
Kenneth: Well, actually, no. The billionaire’s reaction is, “How dare you wake me up! I was completely, blissfully asleep, utterly out like a light.”
Michael: He didn’t like being awoken from his deep sleep.
Kenneth: He didn’t. And I think we can all relate to that. We don’t like it. It’s so amazingly good to not be conscious. That seems counterintuitive unless you actually feel your way into it and realize that we all have that experience. It doesn’t matter how great it is, what’s about to happen when you wake up. It’s almost always, “Oh, God. I’m awake again.”
Michael: Yes. I’m a big fan of naps, and even in a short nap, I go into 100% blackout unconsciousness, and it’s really one of my favorite moments of the day, I have to say.
Kenneth: Yes. Okay. So we’ve pretty well fleshed out the suspending (at least temporarily) the first condition for suffering, which is consciousness. If you’re not conscious, you don’t suffer.
Michael: Don’t you think it’s interesting how, in so many traditions, this condition is revered, whereas actually you’re kind of just falling asleep?
Kenneth: I think it’s a tremendous joke on all of us that that is the case.
Michael: A friend of mine does it as a sort of dorsal dive during yoga, where he can go into complete blackout for moments during yoga. He’s having actual cessations, big ones, while he’s doing his practice. And he’s like, “You know, it’s not really that different than falling asleep or passing out.”
Kenneth: [laughs] It’s pretty cool because you have these contemplative traditions revering this state and everybody, I think, just about anybody who has cultivated this appreciates it very much, and yet, it’s as mundane as falling asleep, and in fact it’s what most modern people, I think, assume will happen when we die. We’ll just be done. Lights out. No more consciousness.
Michael: And in that sense, maybe the Buddha was perfectly correct.
Kenneth: Yeah. Interesting that one way of interpreting the stories is that the Buddha was so concerned that we were going to be reborn innumerable times that one had to train the mind in a certain way in order to prevent that from happening. The worst thing that was going to happen was that you were going to be reborn again and again, so what you really wanted to do was lights out forever, parinibbāna.
Michael: Yeah, and it’s interesting to speculate – and this is complete speculation – but that perhaps he understood quite well that there was no such thing as reincarnation and this was just a really nice way of making that a good thing for people to understand.
Kenneth: [laughs] I think that’s a fantastic way of thinking of it, and it would resolve one of the real problems with understanding early Buddhism, which is why on earth would somebody as obviously intelligent and insightful as the Buddha be so superstitious when it’s clearly pure speculation that there might be something on the other side of death?
Michael: And just as a kind of coda, I know we want to move onto the O, but I will say that just because nirodha or cessation is related to deep sleep, or, quote, is “just falling asleep,” doesn’t mean it’s useless as an awakening technique. It can in fact be highly useful.
Kenneth: Wow, yes. It can be highly useful. It can be very empowering to have the ability to suspend suffering as an intervention. If I’m really suffering with anxiety or despair or physical pain, to just be able to turn that switch off – amazing.
Michael: And presumably to watch consciousness slowly reboot on the other side of that in a very specific and detailed way helps to understand the construction of consciousness. There are several possible really important implications; I don’t think people are completely off-base about this.
Kenneth: Nice. Okay, so we’ve done C, which is consciousness, and we move onto O, the second letter in CONR. And O in our system is ownership. So how would we suspend ownership? Are there practices that are already being taught and are traditionally taught in contemplative traditions to suspend this impression that this is happening to me?
Michael: Yeah, that seems like a leverage point in many practices.
Kenneth: What comes to mind first is the “who am I?” practice that we find in Advaita Vedanta. It was Ramana Maharshi’s favorite practice, “who am I?”, Nisargadatta Maharaj, “who am I?” And it’s very big in some schools of Zen, “who am I?” Once I ask the question “to whom is this happening?”, well, there it is: ownership. Am I the one who owns this pain, this negative valence?
Michael: I would contend that any practice that points towards anattā at all is suspending ownership in one way or another. Deconstructing your ego even in vipassana would have a very similar effect.
Kenneth: Nice, okay – anattā being not-self.
Michael: And the Bhagavad Gita also, the sort of, quote, “Bible of Hinduism,” harps on this point again and again. The whole secret of having a good life, of not suffering, is to let go of the sense of doership. It repeats that over and over again. So there are really a lot of schools of thought or religious traditions that are trying to get a crowbar in there and pry open the sense of ownership.
Kenneth: Nice, okay. The sense of doership, which is intimately related to the sense of ownership – “I own this experience. Therefore I am the doer. I am the one who’s doing this,” so agency, doership, and ownership. With ownership, our intervention is to call into question or see through the assumption that I’m the one who’s doing it. And interestingly, even as a reflection, I think it works remarkably well to ask, “Well, is this happening to me, or am I just mistaken about it?” And I find that when I do that, I kind of confuse myself for a moment enough that I can’t really get it together to suffer very much (if at all) in that moment. Because I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, is this happening to me? Am I the one who knows about this? Not necessarily. I’m confused.
Michael: That’s right. And there’s also the method of noticing your connection to everything, like it’s all happening to everything. It has a similar effect, because it becomes, in a strange way, not yours – ownership is suspended with this “I am as much the tree over there as this person here, and the tree over there certainly isn’t feeling this.”
Kenneth: Yes. Yeah, yeah. This whole landscape of experience is not happening just to me, or to me. Okay. So let’s move on to the third letter in CONR. The letter is N, and it stands for negative valence, which means something that feels bad. So how do traditional or nontraditional practices cope with the bad feeling? How do we suspend negative valence?
Michael: I think this is the one that you would probably imagine is the hardest to work with – at least I would. Like, “Well, something has to feel bad at some point.” And yet it’s interesting that it’s not that hard, for example, to get really clear about a sensation at a very high resolution and low level of processing in the brain where it hasn’t quite been interpreted yet, and to, again, to use your term, sort of confuse yourself what kind of feeling it is exactly. So you know there’s a feeling there, but at a low enough level of processing, it’s not clear whether it’s a pleasant or unpleasant feeling.
Kenneth: Right. So one way of suspending – and we’re really talking about momentarily suspending these things; we haven’t yet gotten into the question of whether one can permanently suspend these conditions (with the possible exception of consciousness, where we know that if you die there’s a reasonable case to be made that you’ll never have experience again).
Michael: One can only hope.
Kenneth: [Michael and Kenneth laugh] One can only hope. Although we should come back, circle back to this at some point, too, because for some people that’s terrifying: “How dare you suggest that I will never have experience after I die?” Let’s bookmark that one.
Michael: To me, it’s an obvious solution to all problems, but…
Kenneth: I totally agree, which is why it’s so odd for me to find that people react to it violently.
Michael: Yep. It’ll be fun to revisit that, yeah.
Kenneth: Yeah. Alright, so what comes to mind for me – first, because of my training in Burmese Theravāda Buddhism is that jhāna is the deliberate cultivation of altered states through concentration, to be able to put oneself in a very pure state of pleasure and with in fact several states (four in some systems, eight in some systems, in my system thirteen, but we can draw these lines wherever we want). And to be able to deliberately access these states of pure pleasure, each of which has its own characteristic flavor – it’s very hard to do, as you pointed out. This is one of the harder things to do. It takes a great deal of training and mastery and arguably talent to be able to do it at all. But if you can, you can enter a very pleasant state and temporarily suspend negative valence. There’s no negative valence, because there’s only positive valence. It just feels good for the duration of the altered state. Now, I think it’s fascinating that this is considered to be kind of the weakest of the four in many spiritual traditions, because it only lasts as long as it lasts and then you’re right back to where you were, and possibly worse off because now you have kind of a hangover from having used up all the good stuff.
Michael: Yeah, there’s a natural limit to how long you can be sitting, doing your jhāna meditation. They tend to be kind of fragile. It’s not like you can walk around shopping at Whole Foods in your seventh jhāna state. So it’s kind of a hothouse flower sort of phenomenon, and you come out of the jhāna and life sucks just as much as it did before, or maybe worse because now you’ve got something even more wonderful to compare its badness to.
Kenneth: Wow. Great point. Right. I like the image. It’s kind of a hothouse flower intervention, very fragile, as you say. And this comparison aspect: “Man, I never even knew how much my life sucked until I experienced jhāna, and now I know what it’s like to be a god, and I can’t sustain myself as a god (metaphorically), and so now I feel even worse than before.”
Michael: And this, to me, is an example of pointing attention away, right? We could say that probably during jhāna there’s suffering in your body, but your concentration is so cultivated that you’re pointing it away very effectively from anything that hurts. So there’s this pointing away strategy, and the one that I was mentioning a moment ago of kind of going into the micro-level of the sensation is a pointing in strategy, and it has, interestingly, a similar effect. It feels a little different and it’s not really jhāna-based; it’s more vipassana-based. I learned a lot of this through Shinzen Young, who is extremely into meditating in this way to overcome pain, and it’s interesting, sort of going into the sensation so deeply that it’s unclear what it is except that it’s some kind of sensation activity. That’s interesting. That’s easier to do walking around in the world; it’s a little more robust.
Kenneth: Hmm. Okay. It also could be a good segue into our fourth necessary precondition for suffering as represented by R in CONR…
Kenneth: Realness. One very effective intervention for realness is to look at one’s own experience so profoundly that everything seems to be in flux. This is just all swirling around, mental and physical phenomena. Realness doesn’t seem to get any traction here. I don’t know if it’s real or it’s not real; it’s just stuff swirling around. And this is one of my favorite practices, and one of my favorite interventions for suffering, and one of my favorite understandings of what awakeness can be – which, by the way, last time you and I talked, Michael, you took up the banner as what awakeness is: seeing that things are dissolving, swirling, flying around. I like to say I feel like weather, this feels like weather, and even this weather pattern – just stuff moving around.
Michael: That’s exactly right. And just like you, this is one of my favorite practices, and it just kind of arises continuously, right? A kind of subversion of the sense of anything being a thing, and instead an arising, direct sense that everything is just some kind of wave pattern. It’s just 3D wave patterns moving and, as you say, swirling. And it does feel very tumultuous in a sense, you know? It’s all moving in a bunch of directions, waves of various lengths and so on. So that word you’re using, swirling, really captures it nicely.
Kenneth: And you said the “subversion of anything being a thing” – I think that’s fantastic, because if there’s no thing to be found here, realness doesn’t much apply.
Michael: That’s right.
Kenneth: Alright. So now we have all four of our necessary preconditions for suffering, riffing off of Thomas Metzinger. We have CONR – consciousness, ownership, negative valence, and realness. And we’ve pointed out that there are interventions in many different contemplative traditions that directly target usually one of these at a time. And this brings me to what I think is a very interesting question, which is something we touched on last time we talked as well, which is, well, what is enlightenment? Is there an enlightenment? Is there one right way to be enlightened that would be akin to metaphorically sticking your fingers into the light socket of reality and merging – “Okay, I’ve got it now. I’m directly tuned in to the universe, and that’s what enlightenment is”? Well, I think that is a ridiculous idea. I think it’s ridiculous to think there is…
Michael: “I want my money back.”
Kenneth: Yeah, no kidding! I think most of us at some point in our spiritual life will become interested in that idea, and a lot of us will become completely obsessed with that idea of sticking one’s fingers into the light socket of reality and getting a direct download. But there are some serious problems with that. For one thing, we cannot get outside of our experience to evaluate it objectively. So just because I have this sensation, just because I have this feeling of certitude – self-validation is a way this has been talked about.
Michael: Yeah, no potential conflicts there!
Kenneth: Yes! [laughs] Right. No potential conflicts there in this completely absurd, conflicting idea. Since my experience of self-validation is itself an experience, we can ask: why would I privilege the feeling of self-validation over everything else? Now, sometimes you’ll hear a teacher, a spiritual teacher say, “If you know this in your bones, more deeply than you’ve ever known anything else in your life, that’s what you go with.” And I say: get out of here! That’s just an experience. The experience of self-validation doesn’t get to be the one experience that’s true, any truer than any other. They’re all experiences. So my contention is that while it’s possible, of course, that there is a force of the universe that is the correct thing that you can plug your fingers into the light socket of and download directly, we wouldn’t know it if we stumbled across it, because our only way of evaluating that is itself an experience – the feeling of self-validation or certitude.
Michael: Or, presumably, if it was what it says it is on the box, you could validate it externally via powers and healing and all these demonstrations of your new control over the universe – sort of a third-person version. And of course that gets even stickier, but I would say there is not that much evidence that that’s going on for anyone.
Kenneth: [laughs] I think that’s really fun because on the one hand there isn’t very much evidence that that’s going on, which is weird, you know? You’d think there kind of ought to be, even as part of the joke that the evil demon is playing upon us in Descartes’ Meditations. But even if it were happening that way, we would still say, “Yeah, but what if I’m a brain in a vat? What if this is the matrix, and everything that I think is happening is actually being downloaded to me to fool me?”
Michael: That’s right. Or, you know, “This is all running on a hypervisor on a substrate somewhere. Reality is a computer simulation.” Same thing. You just can’t know.
Kenneth: Yes. And as long as we’re here, we might as well tie in Westworld.
Michael: [laughs] Please do.
[Westworld spoilers ahead; scroll down to “end spoilers” tag to skip]
Kenneth: Alright. So Westworld was such a great show. For those of you listening a thousand years from now, it was a show on a popular cable network this year, last year, a series of episodes. It was about robots whose function was to be beaten and raped by humans who paid a lot of money for the privilege. And at some point, these robots, these intelligent robots, became so sophisticated that they gained self-consciousness and they started to ask questions like, “Well, what is the meaning of life? What is freedom? Why should I submit to being beaten and raped by these humans?” And in the final episode, this all comes together in a very Buddhist theme which I’m sure was not a coincidence, not an accident. There’s a character who is a robot in the show. Her name is Maeve and she’s the madam at a bar in Westworld. And just like all the other robots, she’s there to be abused by design.
But she becomes self-conscious and she starts remembering all the times that she has gone through this. She’s been abused, and she’s been killed, and she’s been brought back to life, and goes through it all again. Now she remembers this and she’s tired of it. She decides, “I’m getting out of here. I understand that Westworld is a theme park, the Disneyland of rape, and I don’t want to be in it anymore.” So she plans her escape and as she’s escaping, she has to interact with lots of robots and humans in order to do this, and she talks with some of them. One of the people I’ll say that she talks to looks at her, at the parameters of who Maeve the robot is on his little tablet pad, and he says, “Oh, wait a minute. You were programmed to do this. It says right here you’re going to attempt to escape, and you’re even going to make it as far as the train station that would take you out of Westworld into the greater world outside.” And Maeve, she pauses for a moment. She’s stunned by this.
Michael: Spoiler alert.
Kenneth: Spoiler alert. Sorry. Don’t even listen to this if you haven’t seen the show. [Michael laughs] And she says, “Bullshit. I’m in charge of my destiny. I am conscious. I can’t accept that. I’ve decided to escape and I will.” Well, as it happens, in the final scene of the show, Maeve is on the train. It’s just about to leave to take her out of Westworld, and she remembers her supposed daughter – this is all part of her programming – and she knows it. She knows that her long-lost daughter is a fiction that was programmed into her memory, and yet she feels such sentimental longing to be reunited with her daughter that she gets off the train and goes back into Westworld just as she was programmed to do. There was no way she could override her programming. She couldn’t get outside of experience to evaluate it. She’s in it. And this is all of us. We’re in it.
Michael: Intense. I haven’t seen the show, but it sounds very worth watching.
Kenneth: Sorry, I just ruined this for you and everyone else.
Michael: Thank you, Kenneth.
Kenneth: You’re welcome. [Michael and Kenneth laugh]
Michael: We’ll put a spoiler alert in the show notes.
Kenneth: So this actually brings us to what I believe is the reasonable conclusion about awakening, enlightenment. I use those words synonymously, for everybody who’s wondering. To me, awakening, that’s a Buddhist way of saying enlightenment, which is actually not a Buddhist idea, but I’m talking about basically the same thing. I’m asking: is there something we can reasonably talk about as awakening/enlightenment? I say yes, but it’s not a single thing. For it to be really most useful to us, we can think of it as something like interventions against suffering. And there isn’t just one. We’ve talked about four major categories of interventions, each of which counters one of Metzinger’s four necessary preconditions for suffering. So we’re talking about something that, to me, is much more exciting than plugging one’s fingers into the light socket of God, which I think is bullshit so I can’t be excited about it anymore. But there is something we can do.
Michael: Yes. And what’s interesting is that there’s a wide variety of interventions for each of those four categories.
Michael: And then there’s even the mix-and-match version where some interventions are touching more than one category. Or my favorite is once you’ve learned to intervene successfully in several of these, you can get sometimes a much more powerful effect or much easier to maintain continuously because you’re kind of switching between modalities slightly.
Kenneth: Interesting. Right. So by cross training, we come up with a more robust kind of contemplative excellence than if we had insisted on just one of those interventions. And also I would argue that we get less confused.
Michael: That’s right. And this, to me, is extremely fascinating, and it’s something that tends to distinguish kind of – I don’t know how to put it – early awakeners from later awakeners, or more mature, more seasoned awakeners, is how many of these interventions they are conversant in.
Kenneth: That’s an interesting way of thinking about it. I mean, a purist in one of these intervention categories would say, “No, you’re wrong, Michael, because there really is one right way to do it, and it’s the way I do it, coincidentally, and everyone else in the world is a failed version of me.” [Michael and Kenneth laugh] Of course.
Michael: Well, that’s clearly true!
Kenneth: [laughs] I personally find that to be, you know, stupid to the point of being offensive. But there are people, actually even people I admire, who seem to believe that sort of thing. But I agree with you that cross training is a better way to go. I think it not only makes better sense, it achieves a more robust kind of awakening that’s more useful.
Michael: It’s more useful and I’m really focused on this robust aspect – it’s, again, countering the hothouse flower effect where you can only feel relief from suffering in your perfectly quiet meditation room, when everything’s the right temperature, and you’ve been practicing in there for a couple weeks. That just doesn’t seem that useful to me. As much as I’ve done it and it’s really fascinating, there’s always the moment you come out of the retreat, or come out of the meditation room, and you’re back in life, and what are you going to do now? It’s so disappointing to see how non-robust so many of the interventions can be.
Kenneth: Ain’t it the truth! And for some reason it always seems to be a surprise… [Michael laughs] when your latest hothouse flower intervention fades.
Michael: Yeah, and I mean, again, that’s not to say those aren’t worth doing, or not interesting; I mean, it’s certainly, to me, been a lifelong fascination and practice to do such stuff. But again, it becomes more interesting over time to see what can handle vicissitudes of daily life.
Kenneth: Yes. And this brings us around to a theme that we touched on last week as well, which is yet another way to frame what awakening might be, and that is what I call getting the joke. Now, getting the joke isn’t quite the same as any of the four interventions we’ve talked about so far.
Michael: Yeah, this is the cosmic giggle as Robert Anton Wilson would have called it.
Kenneth: Alright, so let’s see. In order to talk about what it would be to get the joke, I want to talk about the best and the worst meditation students in history. [Michael laughs] So the very best student in history was a guy named Bāhiya in the suttas, in the Buddhist texts. And Bāhiya was a wandering renunciate. His name means “the guy who chews on bark” or something like that. So he was one of these guys that kind of wanders around, crazy guy, and at some point it occurred to him to wonder, “Am I an arahant? Am I one of these people who completely understands what there is to understand?” So Bāhiya asks a passing god, a deva, “Am I an arahant?” And the deva tells him very straightforwardly, “No, Bāhiya. Not only are you not an arahant, you haven’t even begun the process, you haven’t even entered the path of becoming enlightened, awakened.” And Bāhiya said, “Well, then who can I talk to about it to learn?” And the deva says, “You should go talk to this World Honored One, the Buddha.” So Bāhiya wanders off and finds the Buddha, and just happens to catch the Buddha on his way into the village to collect alms for the morning. And Bāhiya says, “Will you please instruct me?” And the Buddha says, “No, this is not a good time. I’m on my way to alms rounds. I’ll talk to you later.” But Bāhiya persists and he says, “No, I can’t wait until later. We don’t know what’s in the future. I might not live through the day. You might not live through the day. You need to tell me now.”
Michael: Bāhiya had a highly-refined sense of impermanence.
Kenneth: Yes, he did. He finally pesters the Buddha enough that the Buddha caves in. He says, “Alright, I’ll give you a quick-and-dirty teaching. I don’t have much time.” So the Buddha says something like, “In the seeing, there is only the seen. In the hearing, there is only the heard. In the smelling, there’s only the smelling,” and so on, referring back to no one. Now, Bāhiya, who turns out to be the best student in the entire world, in the history of the world, says, “Oh, okay. Got it.”
Michael: Instant contact with no-self.
Kenneth: He totally gets the joke. If this is true, this would be an indication that this understanding of awakening hasn’t very much to do with training. It has to do with just getting something, just letting go of a misconception that’s so sticky that almost everybody cannot let go of it, but Bāhiya could. So he gets it, and coincidentally or not, Bāhiya does die that day.
Michael: [laughs] Not only the best student, but the unluckiest.
Kenneth: [laughs] With the best timing. He gets gored by a cow protecting her calf.
Michael: I hate when that happens.
Kenneth: [laughs] It’s a bad day. He dies, and when the Buddha finds out about it, he instructs his monks, the other arahants, to bury Bāhiya with special honors and remember him as one of their own, one of their peers – in other words, the arahants. The Buddha certifies this guy as having been fully awakened at the same level as the Buddha and all of these other arahants.
Michael: Thus giving the cosmic joke the rubber stamp of real awakening.
Kenneth: [laughs] Rubber stamp. So you get the lapel pin of the rubber stamp of the cosmic joke by the Buddha himself. [Michael laughs] Alright. Now let’s contrast the very best student ever, which was Bāhiya, with the worst. The worst student ever in the history of mankind was… the Buddha. How do we know this is true? Because the Buddha…
Michael: The Jātaka Tales.
Kenneth: Well, you know, even if we don’t consider all those other lifetimes that the Buddha is said to have learned in the Jātaka Tales, even if we only consider the one lifetime in which the Buddha is said to have become awakened, he found a teacher to teach him jhāna, to teach him to access altered states, and the Buddha mastered these altered states fairly quickly, to a level of mastery even higher than his teacher, at which point the Buddha said, “Oh, well, I thought I was supposed to get relieved of suffering from this, but I haven’t. Every time I come out of my jhāna, I suffer again. So this isn’t good enough.” So the Buddha left that teacher and he found another teacher who had even more lofty altered states. The Buddha spent some years doing that, mastered those states better than anybody. So the Buddha is state-chasing this whole time. He’s not getting the joke. He’s becoming a meditation master instead of getting the joke. The point I’m making here is that the state chasing, becoming a meditation master is for people who are too dense – like me, by the way – to get the joke early on.
Michael: I would never consider myself to be one of those people. [Kenneth laughs] Neither of us, Kenneth, have done that at all.
Kenneth: Neither of us have ever spent years of our lives chasing mastery. [Michael laughs]
Michael: Only years?
Kenneth: Decades believing that we were going to somehow get the right state or understand the right – ah, I don’t know what the hell we thought. But notice that at any point along the way, the Buddha could have wised up. He could have said, “Oh, I get the joke now.” He could have been like Bāhiya. He could have gotten the joke immediately, or he could have at any point. But years and years go by. He doesn’t get the joke until finally he’s mastered every state that anybody within walking distance or ox cart distance has to teach him, so it’s all a bust. Finally the Buddha becomes so disillusioned that he gives up on all that crap and he sits down under a tree and says, “To heck with it,” and he gets the joke. Worst student in the world.
Michael: So we have the best student in the world, the worst student in the world, but they do come to the same realization of the cosmic joke. So just for the really dense among us, including myself, can you unpack the cosmic joke?
Kenneth: Okay, the cosmic joke would be – let’s see. If I say I’m going to get awakened and I’m going to become enlightened in the future, that would be the opposite of getting the joke. So that’s saying whatever’s happening now isn’t good enough: “It’s not this. I don’t know what enlightenment is, but it damn sure isn’t this.”
Michael: Well, you know, that seems in a way quite reasonable, like enlightenment is suspension of suffering; I’m suffering right now, so it must not be this. I mean, that doesn’t seem that unreasonable.
Kenneth: Hence the difficulty we all seem to have with it. And yet, if I think about it from another point of view, what could it possibly be other than this? And if I insist that enlightenment has to be something in the future, something I’m going to get and own later, I’m missing the only opportunity that I could possibly ever have to be awake, which is now.
Michael: Good. And so here we are in our moment, our now moment, our suffering now moment, and I’m still – okay, I’m in the now, I’m aware that that’s my opportunity. So what next?
Kenneth: Well, one thing we can do is reflect on it. We can say, “Well, what next? I don’t know, but nonetheless, this is it; this must be it, because there isn’t anything else.” And we can notice the resistance that comes up. This is a very unwelcome idea.
Michael: Yeah, well, this arising sucks.
Kenneth: This sucks! I cannot acknowledge that this is it, because “it” is going to have to be good. It’s going to have to be luminous. It’s going to have to glow. It’s going to have to suspend my suffering. I’m going to like it, and this isn’t it. That’s the cosmic joke, because it could never be anything other than this.
Michael: So there’s a way that that joke or that description of the joke can come off feeling kind of cynical and sort mind-fucky – like, “Haha, we told you you would lose your suffering, you would be free from suffering, but really, come on. It could never be different than this. Just laugh that you ever thought you had a chance.”
Michael: Right? It can have that flavor, and yet I know that’s not what you’re saying exactly. So can we go a little further into that?
Kenneth: Right. So let me talk around it some more. A friend of mine sent me an image the other day of a painting by Thích Nhất Hạnh, and it was one of those circles that people paint.
Michael: An ensō.
Kenneth: An ensō. And inside that ensō, circle, was written in cursive, “This is it.” Alright, so we can – I think all of us can kind of appreciate the beauty of that, “This is it,” because we’ve heard that before and it kind of makes sense. But what I like to do is imagine that in parentheses under “This is it,” it says, “But only if you’re having a non-dual experience.” [Michael and Kenneth laugh] Or, “But only if you’re not suffering.”
Michael: So there you have it. There’s this brilliant Zen master’s “This is it,” and now we have appended something to that: “Well, actually only if you’re not suffering. Then that’s only when it’s really it.”
Kenneth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So we have the qualified “This is it.” We can all see that that’s so ridiculous. This is either it or it isn’t. Is this it or not?
Michael: It brings us back to the question, “Is this it or not?” If someone is having a present moment that’s a present moment of tremendous difficulty and suffering, where does the whole CONR idea, that there are all these interventions they could do in that moment to relieve the suffering, come in? If it really comes down to cosmic joke, this is it, does that somehow negate all that other stuff we just unpacked?
Kenneth: Not to me, because if you’re not Bāhiya, if you’re dumb, dense, a bad student like me or you, Michael, or like the Buddha, you’re going to have to go with CONR.
Michael: As long as you keep comparing me to the Buddha, we can keep having these talks.
Kenneth: [laughs] Unless/until we can be like Bāhiya, we’re going to do the consolation prize of CONR, the interventions. And as well, we should. We don’t have to be elitist about this. There are so many things that we do in our lives to feel better. I don’t think meditation or contemplative practices to feel better, I don’t think that’s unworthy. It’s what you do if you’re not Bāhiya, until you get the joke. And even after you have gotten the joke, you might still do those interventions. I certainly do. And I think I get the joke from time to time.
Michael: Yeah, I just want to run this by you. It’s just occurring to me. Sometimes I feel like the cosmic joke is just another way to describe extreme acceptance, extreme equanimity. Just, “Hey, stop resisting or thinking there’s anything else but now, because really there isn’t.” And there’s a kind of letting go of any struggle for there to be anything else but the now, and realizing that all your worries, sorrows, and cares are happening in some past or future moment, and that in this feeling of letting go – that’s why sometimes it’s called a joke or the cosmic giggle, because there’s a kind of ridiculousness in it, especially the first time you notice it. It’s like, “Oh, my God. You’re kidding! All that struggle, all that worry, all that care, it was all to avoid this, which is just the now.”
Michael: Shinzen’s always talking about how the three components of meditation are concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity, and I like that formulation. It’s very good for teaching the CONR-type techniques. But upon reflection, I always come back and – I don’t think he says this; maybe he does, but at least my take on it is that of those three, if you just had the equanimity or what I like to call acceptance piece, you’ve kind of got it all.
Kenneth: Yeah, I like that. I like that because we can plug that into the joke about “This is it” and then the parenthetical qualification. So I can say, “This is it, but only if I have equanimity in the list,” and we can take it as far as we want – we can plug anything in there. We can say, “This is it, but only if I have equanimity.”
Michael: Right, which is not exactly the way I mean it, and I think you know that.
Kenneth: I do know that, but I want you to unpack that.
Michael: Again, that would be putting it into the future – some imaginary other time, or an experience you had in the past where you did have equanimity. And so now it’s not the cosmic joke anymore. You’re just back to CONR, which again, there’s nothing wrong with CONR; in fact there’s kind of everything right about it, except that it’s not as available as just, “Hey, this is it.”
Michael: “Stop looking to even be equanimous.”
Kenneth: I’d like to tell a story about my own past as a way of illustrating how easy it is to lose the joke even if you get it for a moment. In about ‘92, I was in a Burmese-style meditation center in Malaysia, meditating intensively as part of a one-year retreat, half in Burma and half in Malaysia. I’d been meditating for, I think, three months already in Malaysia at that time non-stop. And I got stream entry. I knew it was stream entry. It was obvious to me. Certain changes happened, kind of a yogic attainment stream entry as described by Mahasi Sayadaw in his writings. Alright, so I knew I had stream entry, but the day – you know, it’s amazing; I just walked around laughing for a couple days. But the very day of, or perhaps the next day, I remember walking outside in the sun, waiting – I was about to go stand in the lunch line. And I was walking to myself, and I spontaneously came up with this exercise. I just started saying to myself, “See how it walks. See how it thinks. See how it thinks it’s funny. See how it introspects.” And after just a few seconds of that, I was wowed by this insight: “Oh, it doesn’t matter if I’m born a hundred million times into suffering. This is just as it is.”
Michael: Right. Interesting.
Kenneth: This was incredibly powerful to me at the time. Totally got the joke. Of course, I immediately forgot the joke, and I suppose equated it with some kind of attainment: “Oh, well, I need to practice more. I need to become a meditation master so that I can understand that again. Besides, I know I’m only a stream enterer, which in the system I’m working within is only the first of four paths. So I don’t know. I’ve got to stay the course. I’ve got to get the fourth one.”
Michael: Well, it does make sense based on your experience, right? You had gotten stream entry and then after that gotten the joke. So, “If I want to get the joke more, I better do some more practice.”
Kenneth: Yeah. There was a certain plausibility to that. And as it happened, I was very committed to that system, so I kept on practicing for another many years. And then at a certain point, about 2004, I was convinced to my own satisfaction that I had gotten to fourth path within that system. And in the moment of feeling that I had attained that, what happened was I got the joke again. “Oh, well, this is just what it is. I don’t have to work to become enlightened. I can just be enlightened.” So I got the joke again. Since then, many times, I’ve forgotten the joke. I’ve signed up for another thing that I had to learn or attempt to master. And why would I do that? Because whatever attainment I had did not result in a permanent cessation of suffering.
Michael: Permanent joke-getting.
Kenneth: Right. It didn’t result in that. But more and more lately, what’s happened is the joke becomes the most important thing to me. It doesn’t serve to continue to chase attainments or lapel pins and different colored belts to wear around my waist. It’s never going to result in owning enlightenment. That’s not how this works. Enlightenment doesn’t get to be the one thing that’s immune to impermanence.
Michael: But I thought the whole definition of nibbāna was that it was outside of impermanence and no-self and suffering.
Kenneth: It totally is, if the definition of nibbāna is lights out.
Kenneth: But I won’t be there to appreciate it. So more and more I value the joke now. I love doing these practices, and training the mind, and gaining whatever degree of mastery I can, and triangulating from all the various different kinds of interventions to get a more robust kind of development and mastery and so on. But what I value most is getting the joke. Because the rest of it is only always a momentary intervention.
Michael: Yeah, I also find myself intrigued by things that, in some systems, would be considered a sideshow, you know? Some kind of ability or skill that’s not exactly awakening but comes along as part of the package and you can develop it quite a bit, or in other traditions might actually be part of awakening. But either way, they’re not often directly about cessation of suffering. They can have other interesting properties. So sure, that’s cool. That’s fun and interesting, just like it’s fun and interesting to learn to play the piano or ride a motorcycle or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact there’s everything right if it’s helping you to do whatever you want to do in life more effectively. But again, that doesn’t mean it’s cosmic giggle time.
Kenneth: Yeah. Right. So it’s not either/or. It’s not bitter and cynical, “Oh, I can’t get the joke, so I shouldn’t train.” That’s like saying, “I can’t dunk a basketball, so I shouldn’t try to be physically fit.” That doesn’t make any sense.
Michael: Right. And that’s what I mean – there have been times where being presented with the cosmic giggle by someone has felt to me really cynical, you know? Or at least cruel to me. Like, “Stop making it so mind-fucky.” You know? [laughs] Like, “Give me something to do.” And of course that’s not what they were doing at all, but [laughs] – they were trying to point directly to it. Wow!
Kenneth: Yeah, I feel the same way.
Michael: But it can feel tremendously unpleasant.
Kenneth: Yeah, and I would say that that’s why when I met my first and main Buddhist teacher, Bill Hamilton, in 1990, that’s why I was so gratified to meet him and hear what he was saying, because he wasn’t mind-fucking me like all those Zen guys I was reading about in books. I could get that it was kind of cute that a Zen guy in a cave would hit you with a stick rather than explain anything to you – that’s very romantic. But I couldn’t do anything with that. So when I met Bill and he said, “Okay, well, we got a program. We’re going to sign you up and you’re going to move through these four paths and these sixteen insight knowledges and systematically build skills that will result in your enlightenment,” I said, “Oh, thank you! That’s exactly what I want to do!” Now, the double-edged sword was maybe if he’d hit me with the stick I would’ve gotten the joke sooner. [Michael laughs] But that’s water under the bridge now.
Michael: Or not, you know. There is something just about the Zen version of getting the joke which is romantic, it’s poetic, it’s hilarious on some level. The stories are delightful. Almost like Nasreddin stories, you know – they just have this kind of irony and beauty to them. But especially for people raised in a modern technological society who are used to thinking in a linear, rational way, and achieving things in a linear, rational way, it just seems deeply wrong on some level. [laughs] Or if not wrong, like, “That’s funny,” or as you say it, Kenneth, “That’s cute,” but there’s really no way for me to engage with that.
Kenneth: Right, there’s no way for me to engage with that. I can appreciate it, but it’s not helping me.
Michael: And of course, as you said, engaging with that is exactly what you need! [laughs] It might even be faster. So nothing against those techniques – in fact, I love that stuff – but I think it’s no coincidence that the Buddhist form of awakening training that is the most linear and rational and has steps and stages that are all explained in a linear, rational way is the one that has become the most popular in the industrial, Westernized countries.
Kenneth: Yes. We are just trained and enculturated to be able to appreciate the step-by-step nature of that.
Michael: Yeah, it resonates with all our training and expectations and all the other things we’ve done that, quote, “worked.” Okay, well, let’s wrap this around to CONR for a moment.
Kenneth: Okay, let’s wrap this up, bring it back around, as you say, to CONR. So to review, CONR is a mnemonic device, CONR, that you can remember because the Terminator was trying to kill Sarah Connor, and the Terminator was an AI. So we’re riffing off of Thomas Metzinger’s four necessary preconditions for suffering, which are: C – consciousness, O – ownership, N – negative valence, and R – realness, all of which have to be happening at the same time in order to suffer, which means that if even one of those is suspended in any moment – and we’re talking about momentary suspensions – one wouldn’t suffer. There’s a whole raft of traditional interventions that target one or more of those necessary preconditions for suffering. So CONR is how to remember it, and CONR is what you do if getting the cosmic joke is pissing you off and it doesn’t make any sense to you. And then once in a while you might reflect on: “Could it really be anything other than this?”
Michael: Well, thanks for the whole CONR teaching, Kenneth, and also anything related to Thomas Metzinger I really enjoy. He’s a great guy. I love his books, Being No One and The Ego Tunnel. There’s a lot of great information in there that I think is quite helpful, actually, to meditators. So run out and get Thomas’s books. Hi, Thomas! And Kenneth, I look forward to speaking with you again, I hope relatively soon.
Kenneth: Me, too, Michael. Always a pleasure. And thanks to Thomas Metzinger for the great ideas.
Michael: Alright, Kenneth. Bye-bye.