in medias res #4: in medias res

The problem with doing new things is that in order to learn how to do them, you must already know how to do them.¹

This strange loopiness has come up for me in several fields recently, namely meditation, language learning, and coding. I’ll break the problem down a little by thinking through the first two of these.

Many people initially approach meditation from quite an instrumental perspective, hoping to get some specific thing out of it like calm, focus, energy, clarity, just to name a few. They may give up after a first session if it doesn’t match their expectations: ‘My mind was full of thoughts, this is going nowhere!’. 

The assumption is either that meditation is useless, or that it’s just not for them, or they are bad at it. At this point you need something more than just your own understanding to help you find a nourishing practice that avoids various pitfalls.

Let’s look at the Aro g’Ter as an example of a more comprehensive meditation and spiritual practice (disclaimer: I am very much still a novice in this area). From the perspective of Dzogchen (the ‘Great Perfection’ tradition of Buddhism), as expressed in Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Déchen’s Roaring Silence, the world is already perfect; there is nothing wrong with anything. This is demonstrably untrue when judged by our conventional understanding of wrongness, so it requires some investigation.

Fortunately, tradition has given us a method of investigation – in the form of silent sitting. The problem is that we are both in and of the world, using our small conceptual mind to investigate something much larger. The practice of silent sitting enables glimpses of the mind without thought, leaving “nothing to prove that one is solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined”. 

One can only hope that these glimpses will be a ‘seeing that frees’, as Rob Burbea puts it, and lead to a less grasping relationship with form. They may also eventually lead to an understanding of the intrinsically nondual nature of experience. But to begin with, one must take this perspective on faith, trusting in the model of the teacher and broader community of practitioners, and the path that they can only show you, not walk on your behalf.

Or again, consider learning a language. A textbook with staged exposition of grammar and vocabulary isn’t a bad place to start. But to really get anywhere, you need to find intrinsic enjoyment in the pursuit of fluency. When I learned Latin at school, I didn’t fall in love with tables of declensions and the principle parts of verbs, although it was important to study them. It was the poetry of Catullus, Ovid and Virgil that I cared about, and that stayed with me outside of the classroom. Or now, learning Italian, the more prosaic thrills of finding that I can understand a complete phrase in a TV programme, or a song by Fabrizio de André. And I know that to truly engage in the language, I’ll probably need to do a bit more fraternising with my Italian friends, and be prepared to ‘fake it til I make it’ – trying things out, messing up, and trying again.

This process is reflected in learning anything. Despite the best wishes of those who design curriculums and standardised tests, expertise is not usually gained in a perfectly linear, staged fashion. David Chapman has explored what it takes to do innovative intellectual work in his essay ‘Upgrade your cargo cult for the win’. Although he focuses on doing better science, the lessons apply to any field of human endeavour that involves learning some kind of competence within a community.

The first stage of learning usually involves some kind of cargo culting, as Chapman puts it, drawing on a 1974 commencement lecture by Richard Feynman. Cargo cults are a phenomenon documented since the 19th century, in which a relatively less technologically advanced society performs rituals designed to bring them the goods of a more advanced society. The name comes from the construction of mock airstrips and airports by Melanesian islanders, in the wake of Japanese and American military activity during the second world war. The soldiers were accompanied by a great deal of ammunition, clothing, and food, which seemed to drop miraculously from aircraft. The theory is that islanders hoped to achieve the same ends for themselves, getting hold of valuable goods by appropriating the outer trappings of a cargo drop.²

When you first join a community of practice, you do indeed often need to imitate things which you don’t understand at first, in order to gain new abilities. Eventually, the hope is that you will understand how these rituals work, and transcend them, hopefully in innovative ways. The method for getting from A to B is to inculcate what Chapman describes as ‘epistemic virtues’, which are ‘cognitive traits that tend to lead to accurate knowledge and understanding’.

Feynman’s solution to cargo cult science, in which practitioners merely do ‘what scientists do’, without hope of genuinely delivering something new, is to call for utter honesty’, which is about not kidding yourself as much as not kidding anyone else. Chapman suggests that curiosity, desire, and courage might be even more important than honesty. If you really want to know the answer, you won’t just go through the motions of practice, you’ll keep going until you find it, or at least a better question. You need a desire to figure out what’s going on, and the courage to admit your mistakes and publicise them to help others.

Chapman’s specific model of going beyond cargo culting is to engage in ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in a community of practice. In the case of meditation, that means finding a teacher, going to in-person events, meeting fellow practitioners, and relaxing into a given role as part of the group. This process is interactive and iterative, and takes you beyond the realm of imitation into something richer. And once you’ve mastered the norms and forms of a community, you may find that you want to innovate, and be part of a community’s reflection on  its own epistemic virtues and vices.

Fundamentally, you can’t know where you’re going until you get there. To begin with, you’d better find whatever you’re trying to do intrinsically interesting, or at least be able to align it with where you are now. You need a plausible path and goals, whilst acknowledging that both may shift dramatically over time. You need a compelling vision of expertise, in the form of leaders and peers who are further along the path, or perhaps have some useful insights from other nearby paths. And you need faith, in the unknowably competent version of yourself that you gradually, imperceptibly, hope to merge with.

  1. “The problem with teaching you programming is that to understand many of my descriptions, you need to know how to do programming already.”

    Zed Shaw, Learn Python the Hard Way

  2. Of course, ritual is usually more complex than this, and one should tread carefully with  ideas of  societal ‘advancement’. This essay by Sarah Perry is a good starting point for a more complete understanding of ritual:

Me elsewhere: a dubstep mix in celebration of some 15+ year old tracks finally being released.

Things I saved to Evernote this month:

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