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:


Recently I’d started to feel slightly ashamed of my large and growing pile of ‘to-read’ books. Like Austen’s Emma, I make ambitious reading lists and plans, but consistently fail to finish as many books as I want to. I’m partly able to alleviate this shame with a sort of ‘shoot for the moon, land among the stars’ attitude (an expression I’ve discovered has a murky history), but it still lingers. Luckily, a salutary book found its way into my hands a few weeks ago, Pierre Bayard’s provocatively titled ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’ (thanks to the prompting of this note by @DRMacIver). With tongue somewhat in cheek, Bayard pokes fun at the culture of literature, and the minor hypocrisies and elisions of ignorance that sustain it.

There are more books in the relatively modestly-sized bookshop at which I work than I will likely read in my lifetime. And yet, at least within certain milieux, some of us feel called upon to demonstrate our knowledge of particular books, and feel ashamed if in truth we haven’t. This is perhaps more of a pressing concern to those directly engaged in writing or critiquing books, as Bayard admits, and it does seem that in general our culture prizes literature less by the year. Nevertheless, assuming that you as an individual care about books, and you talk to other people who care about them, I think this holds true.

Bayard’s take on the situation is that it can mean many different things to have read a book, and that it is perfectly reasonable to both judge and discuss at length books which you have only skimmed, or have in fact never looked at. Indeed, he suggests that most of our conversations about books are in fact about screen books (following Freud’s category of ‘screen memories’), which are ‘substitute objects we create for the occasion’. He suggests that the screen book is based in large part on a person’s inner book, an unconscious set of mythic representations that filters their perception of the books they encounter. To complete the trio, he proposes a phantom book as the object that emerges at the interaction of exchanges between personal screen books, themselves refracted through our inner books.

The second and third parts of Bayard’s book concern the encounters one might have in out there in the world discussing books, but I was particularly struck by the chapter on ‘Books You Have Forgotten’, (his other three ways of not reading are ‘Books You Don’t Know’, ‘Books You Have Heard About’ and ‘Books You Have Skimmed’). Here Bayard’s argument takes a philosophical turn, pointing out that as soon as you start reading a book, you have already begun to forget it. Drawing on Montaigne’s writing about his own forgetfulness, even to the point of forgetting things he has himself written, Bayard notes mordantly, “What we preserve of the books we read – whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully – is in truth no more than few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion”. The argument is almost eating itself with the suggestion that Montaigne’s extreme forgetfulness “seems to erase any distinction between reading and non-reading”, and that we might “conceive of reading as a loss”.

So, how does this shed light on my reading woes? I was lucky enough to have a tutor at university who set us to read Borges’ short story ‘The Library of Babel’, about an infinite library. Through permutation of the letters of the alphabet, it contains every possible book, and the librarians who slowly journey through its hexagonal galleries have spent millennia devising various competing metaphysics and mythologies of how the library is supposed to work. If I learned anything from this (I can’t remember exactly what I was supposed to be learning), it was that the infinite granularity of the world is both dizzying and, on occasion, strangely comforting. Any individual book you read represents a choice not read all of the other books available to you, i.e. every other book that exists. There are at least two directions that this thought can lead you: either to a kind of paralysis, of never feeling sure if you’re reading the right things, or to an obsession with identifying key texts to read and digesting them as fast as possible. But there is another path: owning your personal route through the information overload, and treating it as a kind of exploration, with both gain and loss an inevitable part of the journey. Taking Bayard to heart, as well as a recent Malcolm Ocean blogpost, and a lovely newsletter by Adventsnore, I’m going to focus on reading whatever seems the most compelling at the time. Rather than ploughing through things I’ve lost interest in for the sake of completing them (and adding them to my goodreads count!), I’ll try to follow the threads that are bringing me joy and insight, and feel a little less shame about the 75% unread Proust on my bookshelf.

Stuff I saved to Evernote this month:

Getting Messy with Mental Polyculture

Over here in my corner of the Twittersphere, it seems you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t read James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. In some sense I’ve been thinking with it ever since I came across Venkatesh Rao’s elucidation of ‘legibility’. This isn’t a long summary or a review – I’d recommend the above or Slate Star Codex for that – but a brief look at a simple idea: that of ‘strength in diversity’.

One of the key ideas that the book circles back to is the fragility of monoculture, and the strength of polyculture, despite an outer aesthetic appearance of disorder. Scott’s first example is that of German forest management from the seventeenth century onwards, when it was discovered that a pristine forest of neatly regimented trees may produce an abundance of lumber for a generation or two, but is ultimately likely to collapse under one or more stresses of disease or weather, in a way that a more diverse forest does not. The rule holds in other kinds of agriculture, and can also be extended to cities, as explored in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Whenever an authority seeks to ‘legibilise’ a population or place, they tend to envision a rational order along the lines of a military camp, and whether their intentions are benign, malignant, or somewhere in between, this legibilising will entail cutting out a good deal of actually useful stuff. For instance, the Soviet Union’s enforced collectivisation of farming failed to account for a myriad of factors, and its perverse incentives meant that most of the country’s eggs and garden vegetables ended up being produced in tiny private plots of land in the free time of collectivised workers. There is always a ‘dark side’ to these projects: ‘The most rigidly planned economies tend to be accompanied by large ‘underground, gray, informal’ economies that supply, in a thousand ways, what the formal economy fails to supply’.

For now, it seems that European countries and the U.S.A. have given up on vast, high modernist urban or agricultural projects (not so the Gulf states and China). But the force of legibilisation continues apace, especially in the realm of measurement, or metrics. While we are used to the idea that the government gathers information to conduct taxation and distribute services, the last few decades have seen an explosion in the capabilites of corporations to mine and make use information about us. And not only do corporations do this, but we are encouraged to measure ourselves, using apps to track biological processes like menstruation and sleep, and counting the interactions that our increasingly branded personas make with each other on social media. We also find a generalised expectation that an individual monitor, manage and increase their own productivity (however defined).*

Ironically, for the productivity gurus, it seems that attempting to be productive at all costs is, in fact, unproductive. Trying to optimise your life in line with a one-track route of productivity, whatever the goal, just results in burnout and/or apathy. You can think of it a little like going to the gym. If you decide to make your metric of gym success the amount of weight you can lift in a biceps curl, and simply do that, your initial gains will quickly plateau, leaving you with not much to show beyond curious looking biceps. A well-balanced routine would challenge different aspects of fitness at different times, giving a more holistically healthy outcome. Simple productivity ideas applied with brute force often display a similar poverty of breadth, and even if they result in a higher output on whatever metric you might be measuring, this output may well be brittle and somewhat meaningless (the paperclip maximiser is a philosophical exploration of this idea in the realm of AI).

I’m interested in how this notion of mono vs polyculture might apply to our mental lives, as well as the outer world. On a recent Deconstructing Yourself episode, Rin’dzin Pamo and the host Michael Taft discussed the place of internal conflict in meditation practice. External conflict is a given – our expectations, wishes and desires constantly react with a world that does not take them into account. But internal conflict is often assumed to be an ultimately soluble problem. The idea is that to be a rational, disciplined member of modern society, your desires must be legible to yourself, and they must at least accord with one another, whether they make sense in the real world or not. Despite the century that has passed since Freud and Jung’s exploration of the contradictory world of the subconscious, the assumption of much ‘inner work’, be it psychotherapy or meditation practice, seems to be that one could eventually reach a state of perfect mental harmony. In particular, Theravada Buddhist meditation is often described as purifying the contents of the mind, such that one no longer feels strong emotions like fear, rage desire at all. Whether or not this is the case, I’ve come to think that it’s a remarkably bland and uninteresting vision for being a human. I found Rin’dzin’s Vajrayana Buddhist perspective very useful – as they put it: ’I don’t have a problem with conflict, I kind of welcome it’. As anyone who has worked within a formal system knows, there is always a point at which carefully laid rules and plans break down. In the reality of working with a situation, unexpected results are bound to happen. That’s when you need to work with whatever is actually occurring, and be willing to get a bit messy.**

The paradox is in trying to work with systems, order and discipline without coming to believe in them too strongly. The polycultural metaphor could serve us well here, in the context of an imaginary monastery garden. This garden was laid out by several different hands over a few generations as the monastery expanded and contracted. Some parts are more formal and decorative, others purely practical, with room for flowers, shrubs and trees alongside the fruit and vegetables that the monks need to live. From time to time, an administrator will attempt to corral the whole thing into his own vision of order. The head gardener smiles, nods, makes a few cosmetic changes, and keeps things going roughly as before. He has what Scott refers to as mētis, a kind of local, situated and situational knowledge of the garden; the lay of the land, the history of planting, not to mention knowledge of his workforce and their abilities. He also recognises the limits of his knowledge, and allows the complexity of the various garden systems to work themselves out, and occasionally surprise him. Most of all, he understands that the very strength of the garden is in its diversity, with different parts flourishing at different times in response to geography and human intervention. I believe that it’s possible to take this perspective on the individual body/mind. By allowing the existing patterns to express themselves, you can work with the grain of your experience, leaving room for chance, serendipity, and the occasional surprise.

*Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy is on my radar here as a book to read.

**Another podcast conversation that helped to crystalise these thoughts was Zak Stein on Emerge with Daniel Thorson (Metapsychology, Soul, and Collapse, Pt. 2). Stein frames the problem of internal conflict using the terms polytheistic and monotheistic, the former based on a Jungian notion of a cast of archetypal or mythic characters. He also suggests that just as a monocultural farm allows for easy pest control, harvesting, etc., so does mental monoculture, in the sense that it skews towards creating highly legible people with predictable needs and desires.

Recent watching: Stewart Brand’s wonderful ‘How Buildings Learn’, a BBC programme about architecture and design from the late 1990s, which the man himself has kindly uploaded to YouTube.