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06 Sep 2023
Video Overview
Contemplative Sciences Center

Cognitive Effort and Control Practices: To illustrate how meditation involves effortful cognition, this domain concerns characterizations of mindfulness-based meditation in terms of present-centered attention or memory. Interlocutors discuss relevant theories in Buddhist texts, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind with special attention to the extent to which these theories distinguish mindfulness from (a) pleasurable absorption, and (b) cognitive control, both of which involve enhanced attention and memory. Considering contemporary models of the expected value of control in the sciences and philosophy, the domain will discuss the primary achievement in meditation being meta-control: gaining control over typically sub-personal elements of the control process.  

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  • Zach Irving
    OK, begin with I just want to thank Michael. I think this is. Thanks. I know he, well - He put an extraordinary amount of work into this symposium, and I think for experts in the field, you can see the lineup of speakers is just really incredible. This is this is a fantastic conference. And then also the public involvement is also incredible, like you just did in every aspect of the conference, did a really incredible job. So thank you. So this project is also grown out of collaborations with Sonam Kachru. So all of the credit is due to him and all of the errors are mine alone. But I'm sure he's still going to back me up with his extensive knowledge of Buddhism. So here's what we are doing in the next. So what I wanted to begin with in this talk is I'm Canadian, so
  • I wanted to begin the talk with an apology. So there are, I think, a lot of the practices that we're going to talk about in the session are things that are really radically new that you might not have heard. Well, not new. They're very old, but but at least for you they're, and for me, they're going to be new. They're practices that we haven't heard of before, that haven't been theorized in the contemporary discourse. In contrast, our session is going to focus on sitting down and thinking about your breath. So something that you have heard of before. What we're going to talk about, though, is a puzzle that maybe has been under theorized. It goes to Sthiramati. The question is why is, so Sthiramati and Vasubandhu in about the fifth century, talk about the question of why concentration, this thing of focusing on your breath, why samadhi is just so difficult to achieve. And their answer to this question is that that problem arises when you think of these practices in terms of ordinary cognitive faculties like attention and memory, and that to explain why they're so difficult, what you instead need to know, is that even these basic cognitive practices involve something incredibly radical, which is expanding the scope of your agency in a pretty profound way. So that's the
  • sort of argument from the 5th century that we're going to outline and we're going to show how that comes into contact with contemporary cognitive neuroscience. So that's going to be so the structure. So what we're going to be doing, there's three hours in the session. The first hour is going to be on this problem of why samadhi is so hard as it gets played out in the classical literature. And the second hour is going to be on the what their solution is, this radical expansion of agency. And the third hour is going to be expanding some of these dialogues between ancient Abhidharma theory and contemporary computational cognitive neuroscience into a sort of more general theory of the mind and having that conversation. OK, so this is the first hour where what we're going to be talking about in our dialogue is this problem and whether it's a problem. OK, so we begin with is this puzzle so Sthiramati on his commentary - Sthiramati, this is in his commentary on Vasubhandu's thirty verses. What
  • he does is brings up a view that he had and Sthiramati begins to talk about and says one who's a here's a view that I have of what somebody involves, right, what concentration involves. He says one who has attained attention has attained concentration is the view that he previously had. So if you haven't learned how to attend really well, well then that's what it is to attain concentration. Then Sthiramati brings up a worry, and that's when he says the phrase one who has attained attention means one who has attained distinctive and extraordinary variety of attention. Contrariwise - but if that's the case, then every living being would be one who's attained attention, since all mental events involve the kind of attention that's operative moment to moment. So here's the idea. If what I'm doing by focusing on my breath is merely attending well, well how was that so hard? How is that so extraordinary? What monks do when they're able to focus for hours at a time when their breath must be something above and beyond a sort of ordinary cognitive capacity that normal human beings have like attention. Here's
  • how we can extract the argument in that session in that text, which is that advanced contemplation, so samadhi, is an achievement that requires more than ordinary mental actions that people can perform without training. It's really, really hard to achieve this, the kind of concentration that monks do. Advance contemplation is, but often and this is a critique that's Sthiramati is making of early Abhidharma philosophers. So people in his own tradition and even in his own work right, of himself in like five or ten years ago. So advanced contemplation is a kind of sustained attention and or memory. This is how he thought of what it means to achieve samadhi is in terms of being really good at attending. But here's his problem, that sustained attention and memory, those aren't extraordinary mental actions. Those are ordinary mental actions that ordinary people can achieve without training all the time. Lots of people are really good at attending to things, at focusing on things. And so Sthiramati has this worry that if you go and think of the core, the cognitive core of a contemplative practice as attention, then you have a really hard time explaining why it's so hard. So
  • to cash that out, why contemplation is so hard, I'm going to make this more concrete both by actually looking a little bit earlier than Sthiramati at a problem that occurred in about the second century, which is think Sonam at least thinks that this might be the first statement of the problem. South Asia, give or take 500 years. Yeah, right. Yeah. So an earlier statement of the problem that's going to make this view more concrete, this problem more concrete, and we'll go through these different versions. OK, so here's an earlier version of the problem. So let's say you have this theory of what is really hard about samadhi, about the kind of single pointed concentration required for advanced of a monk. Let's say you think that what's at the core of samadhi is sustained, present centered attention. So what's so impressive is that you're attending to an object, your breath for a long period of time. OK, that's hard. Here's the worry that gets raised in the classical text, it takes the form the story.
  • Here's a story where Samiddhi is a monk and he is hanging out and taking a bath and he is a very attractive man. And so a goddess comes down and she decides that she's going to tempt him by tempt him into sort of engaging with her in sensual pleasures. But how she does that is really interesting, because what she doesn't say is you should engage in sensual pleasure with me because pleasure is good. The monk's not going to be tempted by that. He rejects that claim. Rather, what she says is, you should come with me. We should be together, because in doing that, you're going to achieve the end of your contemplation, contemplative practice. You've been trying for a decade sitting there in a cave of trying to focus your attention on one thing for a long period of time. I'll make it really easy for you. Let's just engage in both sensual and religious ecstasy, right? If you do something where you not only have sensual pleasures, but also have the Christian equivalent of staring at the beatific vision. Right. Of looking at a
  • goddess. That you're going to focus on that for a really long period of time, right? You're going to find it very easy. And so you'll achieve this thing that you've been trying to achieve in the cave. I got it way easier for you. It'll happen real quick. Right? And so here's the point that here's what the monk responds, is that no, no, no, no, this wouldn't be attention, this would be a distraction. Then the goddess presses them and he says, well, I don't know why. Right. I can't really explain why it would be a distraction. You've got to go ask the Buddha. You know, he's hanging out over here. I'm sure he'll have an answer for you. And so that's this is how the story goes, right. Is it ends up within this classical text saying that it's very hard to explain why the thing that the monk is trying to achieve is more difficult, more of an achievement than just focusing on something that is really salient. And now here's the problem. The abstract problem is that one way to attend to a single thing for a long period of time to stabilize your attention is to attend to something that is very salient, either because it's really emotionally salient, it's perceptually salient. That is the function of salience of things that pop out at you,
  • grab your attention and maintain it. That's what they do in an attentional architecture. And so the question is, explain to me why meditation is so much harder than this thing that people ordinarily achieve. OK, so here's one answer. All right. So this is the classical version of the problem. Here's the next version of the problem. So a version that many Buddhist philosophers have in classical texts and that at least an earlier version of Georges here had in his discussion of our account of Smṛti. So here could be a version. Well, look, it's not just that you attend, it matters, not just that you're attending to something for a long period of time. It matters why. Right. And so why samadhi is so hard is that it's not that there's the sort of bottom up pressures that are making you attend to something that's super salient. Rather, it's that you're able to attend to something for a long period of time by holding your sort of aim in working memory. Right. That your aim is to attend to your breath. And in virtue of doing that, that holding that aim and working memory in the sort of conscious mind, it's that that allows you to actually control your attention. And so it's what
  • sort of samadhi ends up looking like on this kind of a model is a particularly effective form of cognitive control. But here's a problem, so cognitive control in psychology and cognitive science, generally, one influential cognitive model of cognitive control, which I subscribe to, is just what it means to control your attention in general for anyone, not just for monks, is to hold some sort of understanding of your task in mind. I call this a task set. Right. So say you're trying to use cognitive control to focus on an algebra problem. Right. Something that not just monks can do, but that fourth graders can do if you're trying to do that or no, that's probably not true. I actually have no idea when children learn algebra. I'm just like not a not a parent yet. I don't know, maybe in my first year university, somewhere in between four and first year university for, you know, if you're lucky. So,
  • cognitive control. So here's how here's how it what it takes to try and focus your attention deliberately on something that you're trying to some task you're trying to perform like an algebra problem is that you try and hold some understanding of that task, a task set in working memory. Right. In your sort of like in the sort of workspace of your mind. In virtue of doing that, you sort of direct your attention. You focus your attention on the things that are relevant to that problem. But that looks a whole lot like this. And so then it becomes challenging again to explain here the first problem was explain to me why what the monk is doing - because it obviously is - so much harder than what someone is doing when they're attending to a goddess. Here's, it's explain why the monk is doing something so much harder - because it obviously is - than solving an algebra problem. So here's a third kind of account. What you could say is that what is happening
  • and what's so distinctive about samadhi is that it's single pointed. So here what you're doing is in working memory, you're holding something in working memory, this sort of task. But the task is to attend to the same thing, your breath on the front of your nose for an hour at a time. And that's really different than what human beings normally do. So say when you're trying to solve an algebra problem, what you do - so say little Jimmy’s in his algebra class - somewhere between him being like preschool and fourth year university at some point. At what grade do you learn algebra? What is it, I don’t - freshman in high school, cool. I really have - I’m a philosopher, I know very little about the world. But okay so, you’re in freshman in high school with little Jimmy. He’s using cognitive control to focus on an algebra problem. What he does is he is you doesn't focus on one aspect of the problem for a long period of time. First, what he does is he focuses on solving what's inside the brackets, then the exponents, and then the next step in the algebra problem, the next step and the next step. And this is what control normally is
  • like. Your attention is normally shifting from one thing to another, even though it's all about the same task, whereas single pointed concentration just ain't like this. There is a single stable object that is unchanging for a long period of time. But here I think Sthiramati is not going to say not going to be fully satisfied with this account. And so this looks hard. This really is genuinely very, very hard for human beings to do. Sthiramati is going to say, yes, I agree that that's hard, but you haven't really solved the problem yet because what he wanted to know is why contemplation is so hard. And he's going to say that this is actually really puzzling, that it's so hard for us to have a single point. So let me give you an analogy. Imagine two players who are really good at playing or two players who can play the synthesizer. So you got player one, it's me. I sit down there and I press middle C for 10 minutes, for an hour. Right. And I just hold down middle C and it plays one note. Got another player over here. She plays Bach, a beautiful cantata. Right. That's changing over time. And this beautiful, dynamic interplay of music. Who is doing something more impressive? So who thinks that I'm doing something more impressive? Me. OK, who thinks that the player B is doing a thing more impressive. Right, then some of you were neutral.
  • You just little, um. It's both impressive. You know, you're you're both you're doing a good job, Zach. OK, so. Here's something weird about attention is that one is harder, it's much harder to play Middle C for an hour than it is to have a beautiful Bach cantata. I think it's I don't know anything about - I'm a philosopher. It's much harder to play middle C than it is to play this beautiful, dynamically evolving piece of music that is the stream of consciousness. Sthiramati is going to say why, right, that's something that calls out for explanation about contemplation and it calls out for explanation about the mind, and that's the explanation that he thinks we don't have yet and that he's going to say that to really explain it, we need to have this really radical picture of the way that contemplation changes the mind. OK, it's now next talk is Karin. And she's going to tell you about that really radical.
  • Karin Meyers
    So while they're getting that set up and just want to correct the record, I'm not I'm not a teacher, I'm just a struggling practitioner that spends a lot of time in conversation with fellow struggling practitioners as well as my academic colleagues. So in thinking about how I would complement the problem as framed by Zach and Sonam. I thought I would start. Well, first of all, I'll be presenting a model of meditation. As David suggested, there are many, many models of Buddhist meditation. For some of you who are Buddhist practitioners, especially in Theravada tradition, this might be very familiar to you. But in any case, I thought it would be good to start with some model, some definitions of samadhi and so on. And so I wanted to begin with this passage from the Aṅguttara Nikāya, because it highlights both the optimal control which is achieved through meditation. So the monk thinks whatever thought he wants to think and he does not think any thought he doesn't want to think same with attention, and he gains at will without any trouble or difficulty.
  • The jhanas or states of absorption, which I'll talk about in a moment. And of course, though, there's a larger context here and the context is the ethical discipline, which is mentioned in line one here, it’s talking about the monks profession of sharing the dharma with others. In other contexts we might just talk about the five precepts or any monastic vows. And there's also a goal. Right. And the goal is the destruction of the taints, liberation from the defilements. Oh and taints, I'll just define those are the, well I define them in the next slide. So what is samadhi? We're going to have some various definitions of it across the Buddhist. Oh, sorry. I think it's my slide. What is samadhi? In the Pali, Nikayas and Exegetical Literature, samadhi refers to a variety of practices related to calm abiding or tranquility known as samatha or shamatha, as well as insight or vipassana or the combination of the two. When it is defined as Zach mentioned, it's often defined in terms of the single pointedness
  • of a wholesome mind. So this is something I would add to that definition. And we find this in both Sanskrit and Pali sources, though there's some disagreement about exactly what the single pointedness means. Is it just the unification of the mental factors or is it having a single object over an extended time or both? Right concentration or right samadhi, the eighth member of the Eightfold Path, which follows mindfulness, is often defined in terms of the four jhanas or dhyanas, and in the Theravada exegetical tradition the jhanas are - in the Exegetical tradition, there's debate about the jhanas is in the suttas I'm going to leave aside - but in the Exegetical tradition following Buddhaghosa and so and the jhanas are absorptive concentrations focused on a single object which modern practitioners describe as a collapse of the subject and object, a collapse of that intentional space between the subject and object. So this is how they describe that absorption. But there are also other kinds of concentration or samadhi.
  • There's a momentary concentration which involves continuous awareness of a broader phenomenal field. So this is the kind of concentration, often at work in mindfulness meditation. And there's also access concentration, a kind of concentration that is capable of supporting insight and perhaps even liberation, but is not considered full absorption, it's sort of the platform from which one engages in full Absorption. Got to do this, too. So there's many, many kinds of meditation objects and practices presented in the Pali, Nikayas and other Buddhist sources. But in looking at the Pali, Nikayas and Pali exegetical literature, Rupert Gethin has identified a basic pattern which I've outlined here. And so after withdrawing, usually to the foot of a tree or some suitably quiet place, the practitioner cultivates mindfulness. And as we will hopefully discuss later today, and as our colleague Georges Dreyfus has written about, we'll talk more about mindfulness specifically later. But this classic sort of mindfulness is as, is not simply bare awareness, but rather an enhanced ability to track relevant information concerning internal mental states, the specific object or the phenomenal field, and maybe you'll want to correct that later.
  • But in the general meditation formula, it tracks the meditation object or topic, as well as internal states and the internal states that are particularly relevant are these key defilements, the five hindrances, which I will specify in a moment. And in this, you know, so the result of the mindfulness is mind free from these hindrances and a heightened alertness or awareness, clarity of mind and attainment of jhana. And I put there ideally the fourth. So this is a very typical pattern of meditative progress that you find in the Nikayas and the Exegetical literature. And in both - we also find it in both the Abhidharma traditions, in the Theravada and Sanskrit Abhidharma traditions as well. And this supports insight into how things actually are, the attainment of liberation, seeing how things actually are and the destruction of the taints or defilements, which I've defined, I went in my slides
  • anyway. The taints or root defilements which are destroyed are craving for sensory pleasures, the craving for states of existence and ignorance with regard to the suffering and its causes is a way to summarize that. So we find this outline of meditation, we find it in the Samaññaphala sutta or the Discourse on the Fruits of the Ascetic Life and this sutta, as some of you will be familiar with, it has a lot to say about proper view and proper conduct and restraint of the senses before then talking about the fruits of meditation and ultimately liberation that accrue to the Buddhist practitioner. And so there's a lot here of preliminary development of cognitive control that is then mastered in meditation. So restraint of the senses is a preliminary way of working with the hindrances. And this is called in the tradition, the gradual training. And so I won't go through all the stages of the gradual training.
  • But there's this larger context of meditation, which is probably relevant in some way to what is happening in a meditation session if we're talking about samadhi as an achievement. So, let me just go to the next slide here. So we find a similar pattern, slightly different arrangement in the Satipatthana sutta, which is maybe more widely used in the West and in mindfulness or insight circles. And here it's less explicit about the cultivation of the jhanas, but if you look at the details of each of the topics of the establishings of mindfulness, you'll see there's references to the development of samadhi. And here, too, we see part of the contemplation of the dhammas, and there's different versions of this, so I just put the one that's in the Majihima Nikaya, but, you know, you'll find arguments about the historical, you know, which was the earliest and how many items are here in the contemplation of the dhammas. But we do typically see the five hindrances as well as the seven awakening factors or wholesome states that are conducive to liberation. And finally, I'll just do one more model before talking in
  • detail about the hindrances, jhana factors and seven factors of awakening. And so another, this is just another model that Rupert Gethin discusses, and here abandoning the hindrances is presented as the basis for then establishing mindfulness and then developing the seven factors of awakening. And here I'll just say, you know, that abandoning the hindrances is, of course, critical to every - in the ethical discipline in the you know, establishing a mindfulness and the attainment of jhana, of course, and then further insight which leads to liberation. So in some, part of what distinguishes ordinary forms of attention or cognitive control from the kind of control involved in meditative practices, is this tracking and abandoning of unwholesome states or defilement and the nurturing or natural arising of wholesome
  • states. So in some context, you know, it's described that just as these hindrances subside naturally, wholesome states arise as the energy from the hindrances has drawn, wholesome states naturally arise or when give some attention to the cultivation of natural states, you find both kinds of descriptions in classical sources and in modern practice. And so this is often part of the practical meditation instruction in contemporary circles, although some teachers emphasize it more than others. But there's usually some kind of tracking of what's distracting you from your object and what qualities, what sort of helpful, supportive qualities are arising. Oh, and I didn't advance, sorry. And so I've just outlined here, just in case you're not familiar with these, the hindrances that obstruct the capacity of the practitioner to deepen mindfulness or develop concentration. And so these are sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry and doubt. And I won't say anything too much about each of these now, we can maybe get into more discussion about it later today. So in the,
  • let's track. Yes, OK, and so as these subside, if one is doing especially looking to narrow concentration in and gain an absorptive state of meditation or jhana, then as these subside, you have these other qualities begin to arise, or sometimes you might encourage these other qualities to arise. And so these are the jhana or dhyana factors. And so there's applied and sustained thought or attention - attention might be a better kind of way to think of this, because it's not necessarily discursive. There are varieties of these vitakka and vicara, which are discursive, but as one progresses in meditation, they're less and less discursive. Some of you may be familiar with Buddhaghosa has all these lovely analogies for vitakka and vicara, but vitakka is like the striking of a bell and vicara, like the sustained ringing of the bell. So it's really a way of engaging with the meditation object, but it's considered to be effortful.
  • There's a kind of effort here and that is as we progress through the jhanas, there's a kind of I call the subtraction formula. So in the first jhana, you have this kind of applied and there's a lot of energy. There's takes a lot of energy to stay with the meditation object with this applied and sustained thought. And then, but as one does so, you have increasingly pleasant qualities arise, sometimes translated as a joy or zest and happiness or ease. And then there's the single pointedness. And then in the second jhana, this effortful engaging with the object is said to subside and then the kind of coarser joy or zest that was there in the two previous levels, it recedes in the third jhana. And then in the fourth jhana, there's not even the kind of excitement or coarseness of happiness or ease, but
  • only equanimity and the single pointedness and so equanimity and single pointedness are dominant. And that's in classical sources, kind of the ideal state to which to attain from which to attain liberation. And as one is developing these qualities, you're also developing the seven factors of awakening which were mentioned and some of the basic formulas. And there we see mindfulness serves to balance out all of these other qualities. And as these balance and grow stronger, then that creates the opportunity for liberation. So you didn't talk about the monk on the road yet? That’s coming up - OK.
  • So the monk on the road, which you're going to talk about next, is really this absorptive kind of meditation, perhaps, where there's a collapse of subject and object and that we might call it kind of nondual state, although perhaps different than the nondual states we'll talk about later today. So you have all these pleasant qualities. And so this is what I'm wondering for the cognitive models. We have all of these kind of pleasant qualities. And as the jhana factors increase and the hindrances reside, the object becomes really interesting. You kind of fall in love with the object. You don't want to, like, engage with anything else. And so it becomes the most important and beautiful thing that you are dealing with. And so this we can talk about the topic of salience is going to come up next. And what's the difference between this maybe and the goddess issue? And sometimes even I'm just going to go quickly to this next. This is just the stock description of the first jhana. And I just put it in here so you get a sense of the very like somatic qualities that are often described.
  • There's debate about whether this is actually happening in the body or it's a mental thing that's felt as if in body. But in any case, you've got all of these other things happening with samadhi as an achievement of attention. And, let me just wrap this up. So I guess my question for the my colleagues here who put together this panel is how can the cognitive models that they're proposing, how can it include some of these traditional qualities or descriptions of the process? Is there some, a way to include that in thinking about the mind, engaging with an object to include the body, the training that goes, the ethical discipline or training that goes into priming faith? I didn't forget to mention faith as part of the gradual.
  • So one has a kind of already one is primed to think that the object is important, even if it might be boring or difficult to stick with at first. And so that has to have some effect over what's happening in samadhi as an achievement and of course, also the context of the goal. So I have lots of questions from my colleagues, but I'm going to end it there. Hopefully that was useful in some way. I think we are opening the show because we are asking the most simple question. I mean, you know, people who are put into the show are usually not that good. And so we are dealing with really difficult, elevated practices, which people have mentioned so far. We're really doing, yeah, like dumb stuff. And so we're doing really hard work. Yeah. Yeah. No, no dumb stuff doesn't need to be easy, you know. What we're trying to explain is very simple, right. It's like we want to understand what is happening when we're trying to focus on an object and our mind wanders and how we can deal with that and improve our concentration.
  • Discussion Participants
    Right? And so we are trying to think about that problem, it's a very simple problem. And yet we are completely - I am completely baffled by it. And I'm sure there are people here who have much smarter ideas than that, but that's what we are really trying to deal with, right? And so what we are trying to use is the resources of traditional Buddhist thinkers and modern cognitive science, inasmuch as we understand it. In my case, not very much. So this is really what we are trying to do. And the traditional answer is that it's a combination of two things, right, sati and sampajañña, smrti, saṃprajanya, and jinpa, and shes bzhin in Tibetan. Right? And so this is how traditional thinkers have tried to deal with that.
  • Trempas, miti, sati is usually understood as non-distractions. Buddhagosa talks about as it might not wobbling, staying on target. I think that, you know, I don't know if it's a paper, but it's put an inventive, interesting idea. Talk about tracking a mind setting a task, and sati is keeping on task, right. In this case, keeping on task, which is just paying attention to that very simple, boring object. Right. And so what we’re trying - what the problem is, how come this is so difficult? And how - what is the role of, I mean, what is important in meditation? The beginning is noticing that the mind has wandered, right, this is what really is going to improve the meditation. And so what we are trying to explain is this very simple process in which our mind is paying attention to the object and fails to do so, and then we notice it and then we correct the, we refocus our mind on task.
  • Right, that's very simple, very basic. And this is a traditional series about it. I don't know how good they are, but this is basically what we're trying to do, right? I think that's the target for Sthiramati. That's right. And then I mean, so there's the issue of, there's the issue of - of let's take it as an issue of defining - if one had to come up with a definition of this idea of our ability to resist mind wandering or distraction and stay right on point, whether it's an object or a task, the issue for people like Sthiramati and other thinkers in these traditions is to come up with a characterization that can do two things. One, keep its finger on capacities that are operative already in our cognitive systems,
  • moment to moment, day by day, skills that we already exercise in a suite of mental actions that are available to us. Otherwise, it would be hard to know how one could begin even training these things. So on the one hand, we got to keep our hand on this idea that we can we can rely on attention or focus or some working memory, something that some ingredient of our ordinary minds is going to be in play. But then the problem is using that, how to specify what is it that we have achieved when we have achieved the kind of focus or concentration or etc. that is distinctive, extraordinary, which resists mind wandering, which becomes hard. And that problem of what is it that one has done when one has succeeded after days and weeks and years of effort. So that's very crucial. The practices Karin is mentioning in the early text. It is black and white. The verbs they use are effort verbs. It is a struggle. It is an exertion, it requires ardour to achieve even the most minimal kinds of success conditions for what they're calling mindfulness or vigilance. Right. And our big picture question is, OK, look, at some point we're going to have to talk about things like the hindrances, just like the early text did, right?
  • We're going to have to bring in this thicker picture of mind. And getting clearer on that is going to be what we're going to be talking about. Zach - I want to do like a brief outline of different kinds of answers. So there's one kind of answer to this question, which is saying what's impressive is that you take ordinary cognitive features of your cognitive architecture like salience and like cognitive - salience, which Karin was mentioning as Karin mentioning this is very important. And then what Georges was mentioning, cognitive control. And you just amplify those. You just like make those better. Right? So that's one kind of answer as to what's hard right, is it's just like the ordinary cognitive architecture, just like boosted. Right. Another kind of answer as to what's hard is something that Karin mentioned, which is like really good, which is that well, look, it's the same cognitive architecture. You just have a really good ethical system around it. That's another kind of answer that I think Buddhist philosophers have increasingly pressed the importance of. Sthiramati and Vasubandhu, his teacher, are going to give a very different kind of an answer, which is that, look, you're doing that
  • stuff, too. But in addition to that, there's also some fundamental piece, and I'm not going to tell you what that is, because I'm going to maintain suspense to the next session. So there's some fundamental piece of your cognitive architecture that you're gaining control of that you didn't used to. So you're actually changing - it's not just that you're amplifying quantitatively the effectiveness of the stuff that already exists, it's that you're adding some new bit to your agency that didn't exist before in people who who had this in like ordinary people. And so it's not like they're just going to say this and you're like, yeah, that's obviously right. This is like a debate internal to Abhidharma philosophy. But yeah, those are the three different kinds of pictures that you could have. Could I add another. Yeah. How about if it's subtraction. Yeah. So and so that's exactly what their picture is going to end up being, is that it's subtraction made possible by changing this fundamental bit of the architecture. Yeah. So I mean. That's right. And, like, to echo Karin's point towards the conclusion, right, when you bring in the body and you bring in affect and these personal histories, one of the - one way of putting what we're saying to telegraph the larger point that this session is going to make is contemplative achievement, any answer as to what the achievement consists in is going to look like a transformation of the agent at a very fundamental level. Right? This is not going to be just supplementing or boosting, as you say, like it's going to require -
  • What was the phrase you just used, Zach? I don't remember nice - well we're going to say, well, we're going to play with some metaphors for what this kind of change is going to look like as we go through - or expanding the scope of agency, expanding the scope of agency and thereby transforming like this is the classical Buddhist language transforming the basis of one's embodied existence or things like that. One way to sort of make that like a concrete question is like, is the kind of transformation you have in meditation different than the kind of transformation you have when you get good at playing the flute or you get good at like playing a sport? Right? Because all of those enhance salience, all of those enhanced cognitive control, I think lots of folks in the literature have been like, yeah, same thing. Same thing. Right. Like all of this is just like getting good at attention. Whereas Sthiramati and Vasubandhu are going to say no. Right? And they're going to capitalize on this classical picture. The classical picture of subtraction where it's like, no, no, in those kind of things it's not the subtractive method. It's you're adding salience.
  • You're adding more cognitive control. Whereas in the subtractive thing, going through the jhanas, it's like you're taking out those things that allow you to get really good at playing the flute or allow you to get really good at playing a sport. How much time do we have in our conversation? This is - speaking of mind wandering, yeah, this is very hard to keep track of time. Well, because we're doing something because it naturally split into three parts where we're splitting up at different times. We have about five minutes for this. I want to ask a question about the affect, actually, because, yeah, that was a - please - point when you turned to Zach and you said you wanted, you had some questions for him. I'd like to put that on the table because it's going to come back throughout. But it sometimes comes in coded language, sometimes is the feeling of effort or the feeling of the relief from effortfulness or the feeling of these other - there's a kind of a whole affective landscape that's involved here. I know you have a question for Zach about this and Zach's got some thoughts on. Well, I wonder if I want to save this for our discussion of salience. Because to me, the object - yeah anyways. Well, OK. So, I mean, I think something that that might be similar that's not, is that as the object,
  • the more that one engages with it, and the more of these other positive qualities result from the resistance of the hindrances. So I have a question about are we gaining control over the hindrances or are they just losing energy because we're turning away from them? Maybe that's the same thing, but it's a little bit different the way I think about it. But then as that happens, there are all of these pleasant qualities and so engaging the meditation becomes easier and easier and less effort and less effort and then eventually, I mean, there's a feeling of like you're not even doing it. It's just doing you. And it's actually harder to pull away when you have to pull away and pay attention to something else. It's annoying. Hindrances come up again because you want to, you know, get kind of addicted to the object. For sure. So how is that different than ordinary attention or what sort of elements of our ordinary cognitive architecture are being used there, but perhaps in a different combination? Yeah, and I think it's really important to recognize, like, the importance of affect in in the shift and how it feels to attend to something. There's kind of three different models in the literature on what's going on. One kind of model, this is like by J - well
  • this is not by Jake Davis and Evan Thompson, but like these are these are philosophers who articulate the models that lots of people have talked about for thousands of years, and lots of cognitive neuroscientists talk about. Jake Davis and Evan Thompson talk about reducing affective bias. And so on one kind of model, what you're doing with affect is you're just making attention less biased by your emotions. Second kind of model, this is Buddhaghosa, filtered through Sean Smith, as I think a really nice person who articulates this model. That kind of model says you can't reduce affective bias. Everything is affectively biased all the time. Really, what you're doing is you're just making different things affectively salient. So you're just changing what is what you're affectively bias towards. Sthiramati and Vasubandhu have a different, a third model, which is that the, how affect influences you becomes different because you gain control over some of the sort of basic mechanisms that in ordinary people generate these kind of affective responses to sort of like and specifically generate the sort of the the wobbliness of attention.
  • Zach Irving
    I'm not - can you say more? I'll say more in 10 minutes after the break. OK. I think we actually have we should we should probably break now for 10 minutes. So this is what little Vasubandhu and Sthiramati say about the problem. I don't know why I'm up here to introduce this, because because it's like one sentence. OK, here's my one sentence. Then Sonam's going to say some really smart stuff. OK, so here we are and the problem is, why is concentration so hard? Vasubandhu and Sthiramati give a kind of radical explanation, which is that because not because it's enhancing attention and memory, not because it's enhancing cognitive control or salience, but because it requires that you gain control over the basic building blocks of agency in normal human beings. It's because it requires you gain control over unconscious and involuntary Kleshas. Oh, and so Sonam's going to give you the Klesa model, the general model in historically, and I'm going to give you a specific way that you might develop that model in terms of computational architecture, from contemporary cognitive, computational cognitive science.
  • Sonam Kachru
    OK, so the way there are two questions you could ask us about, you could say, where the hell are you getting all this stuff? Right? Sthiramati says, Vasubandhu says, Yeah, right, pal. Where is this coming from? And then you can ask us questions about how to make sense of what we're presenting. Zach will take up the story when we, after I've presented you with a few textual places to see the kinds of materials and the shape of the theories we are beginning to build in this session. So one of the interesting things is that the answer we're looking for, for why contemplative achievement is so hard is not found in an account of minds of ordinary people, the minds of people tulku. It's found in an analysis of what makes up the minds of skilled practitioners, or ethically wholesome people or people who are considered normatively on the right track. And when you look in those accounts of what it is that makes people who are doing things correctly as far as Buddhist texts go, they point out a factor. Now you've seen this factor before in Karin's presentation. It's a synonym for one of the factors when things go right on the path, that's one of the factors of awakening. And it has received very little theoretical and historical attention, I think, actually. So here's, here's the idea. The
  • Workability of mind, and you could have translated that word as control, is a distinct mental factor that serves as the occasion for pleasure and the feeling of ease on the part of a mind conjoint with the right attention. So remember, our question is, why the hell does it - why is it so hard, and why does it feel so hard to stick with a task or an object for very sustained periods of time unless the object is really pleasant to you already, or it is like exerts a certain kind of salience? Well, there is a factor by which the mind can engage intentional content without impediment. That factor’s called workability of mind or plasticity of mind. And it defines the factor, flexibility of mind, which is an antidote against badness or unruliness of body and mind. And that unruliness, which is felt, it's felt when the body and mind don't do what you think it ought to be doing at certain points, that is the lack of body and mentally workableness and it's connected, as you read on, this is Sthiramati, with the seeds of klesas, afflicted factors. Right. And flexibility is an antidote to that. So samadhi really gets going, the gears gets spinning, and you manage to sustain a certain kind of concentration on the sorts of things you ought to be paying attention to only when you are basically enacting a certain kind of flexibility of mind and
  • body. And that flexibility of mind and body kicks in when the klesas get out of the picture. But what the hell are the klesas? OK, the take away, I just mentioned, there’s something, it's not just samadhi or absence of samadhi. There's something determining when samadhi is possible or not, which is an integral ingredient to defining contemplative achievement. There's interesting stuff about how they're thinking about this. Generations of thinkers in this tradition are talking about whether it's skill or not, facility or not, ease or not. But that factor has to do with the kleshas. On this everybody agrees, this missing ingredient in our picture. So in the first presentation, we started talking about attention, working memory and concentration and things like that, as if the mind looks like this. You focus on something or you try to focus on something. What we missed is what gets in the way. This is not to scale. Good.
  • It does, yeah, the tiny elephant was not working on the computer. What are the klesas? So the picture of mind that's developed by Buddhist philosophers working in these traditions has two parts. They tell us about the mind compositionally and then they tell us about the mind in subsequent chapters dynamically. Well, the fact when the mind is actually embodied, when it is part of a person with a personal history and a trajectory, etc., how does it actually work? The afflictive factors are a normative way of speaking of latent tendencies that constitute and by constituting structure the minds of ordinary people. These guys are not inert. The klesas basically are shaping mechanisms that change the mind, even ecologically, to make up certain kinds of people and not other sorts of people. The klesas, it's very important, this bit is very important. It's actually the most exciting thing about the Buddhist model, I think. When Karin presented to you the Five Hindrances, many of you will have noticed that it was a really eclectic mix of kinds of factors, some with somatic, some were cognitive, some were affective, some were more difficult to place. These are not only physiological considerations, they're not only motivational considerations, even cognitive elements. For example, the degree to which you find a certain kind of ritual, say, involving animal slaughter, pleasing or not, can go into making up the minds of certain sorts of people and then dictate the sorts of things they can pay attention to or not. Certain kinds of motivational states, certain kinds of affective states, angry people will have different kinds of attentional mechanisms than non-angry people and so on.
  • What is clear from the text, at least from the time of Vasubandhu, but he's drawing on a long tradition that these latent tendencies, the klesas are the root of experiential being, including the root of the mental cognitive systems that make up experiential being. I'm going to just point out among the ten things that they explain klesas as doing to minds and bodies in action, I'm going to list only from seven to ten because they're interesting to us today that we're going to look at the klesas as attention hijacking systems, basically. So they tend to in terms of epistemology when the degree to which we're aware or correctly aware of what we're doing or what we're focusing on, klesas confound one. They typically distort our sense of what's going on. They bend the stream of awareness towards objects of different forms of life. They bring about a falling away of good. I'll explain what that means. And, this is crucial to our talk, it amplifies the sense and purpose as a bond. What does that mean?
  • Klesas create conditions with which we will find it difficult to identify with. That's very crucial to the sense of agency we will talk about. Klesic experiences are experiences we feel bound by. They are not things that we would identify reflectively as what we want to be the case. The mind with klesas is a mind bound in two senses. First, and you saw this in Karin's talk, when the Buddha is telling monks, what is it that meditation does for you? Well, it allows you to attend to what you ought to attend to. The mind ordinarily constituted, say these texts, cannot attend to what one ought to attend to. I should be focusing on this talk. But right now, I really want to know where the restroom is. And because I tend to suffer from OCD, I'm really irritated that my phone cannot pick up Wi-Fi. I should not, I don't know what the hell that has to do with anything, but I should not be worrying about that right now. But the mind with klesas cannot attend to what one ought to attend to. Conceivably, though, and this is the more important point, the mind with klesas cannot even want to attend to what one ought to attend to. This is very, very crucial. Again, it's a picture that has gone understudied and underspecified in Buddhist sources. I mean, the Buddhists are talking about it, but we who are studying Buddhist philosophy sometimes
  • forget about this. Chandra Sripada actually just gave a talk that's very close to this topic. Right in the following sense. The Mahāyāna-sūtrālamkāra and the commentary which is ascribed to Vasubandhu, instructs the aspiring practitioner of ethics to see that the klesas make our volition our intending minds, our minds and action unfree, which is why we should withhold from the practices of praise or blame until we have sorted out these kinds of mechanisms and structures. And to figure out just - and actions being voluntary is not sufficient to make it freely agential. Right? This is the point that these texts are making. Klesas cause the components of mind and mental agency to not be under control, to be experienced as a bond, to be not what we wish to be the case. The same goes for the kinds of agents exemplified by mental actions such as memory, attention and other basic units of mind, moment to moment, one's attention, one's decisions, one's categorisation, one's volition are not free. What we can have in view, how we have it in view, for how long we have it in view, what is found to be pleasant, what is experienced as pleasant and as attractive, as aesthetically compelling or
  • Meaningful, what is salient, what is not are not under our control. There are parts constituents of our minds that are declared to be klesic and to be a kind of a hostile agency. Now, this is very crucial, right? This is you guys, practitioners, right, like this is not the picture. It's not like a mind trying to bring under control, cognitive control something non-cognitive, like this is the platonic picture, right, of philosophy is bringing the undisciplined parts of our body, the thumos or the non-psyche parts under control. No. This is bringing the unruly, cognitive bits, and non cognitive bits too, under cognitive control. But what does that look like when the cognitive control mechanisms are the ones that are like the runaway elephant? Listen, I really need to know where their bathroom is. To generalize: our minds and mental agency are composed of factors, including factors of cognitive control, which in turn may or may not be under our control. And so to the degree to which something is experienced as being effortful or not, easeful or not, etc., hence the importance of Sthiramati's definition. There is a factor that determines when the attention is possible because of making it easeful, etc.. So we need to go hunting for that. The
  • function of agility is to eliminate all the afflicted attention hijacking factors entirely, as a consequence, remember, this was teased at the end of the last session, the big picture is samadhi is possible when there is a radical transformation of one's being brought about by the influence of samadhi. So the exercise of contemplation is fiddling with the basic ingredients of one's experiential and cognitive makeup. Where? And yes, that's going to just push somebody no one is pushing the carbon you thought was the last one. And then here he's returned to ---. Thank you. That was just a different Sanskrit word used to gloss them, so the commentators are trying to get clearer on what the word is, actually, because --- is not as it's not so clear, there are many kinds of ways in which one could translate it.
  • The flexibility comes from the commentators telling us picking words actually from skill-based activities that become easier over time. That's where, otherwise, open a dictionary, it's not obvious how you would translate ---, but that's that's what's happening there. OK, I'm going to like the big picture just to leave you with an analogy. My colleague Eric Green, blessed be he, a good man in New Haven, wrote an entire book on the experience and practice and theory of meditation, in China, fifth and sixth centuries. And he talked about Chinese thinkers who are working with similar traditions of the Abidharma, talking about the kind of transformation of samadhi as reconstituting one's physical body, even down to the level of atoms. Right? And it is possible, given the way some of us talk about contemplation, too, that that can seem like a bit excessive or wrongheaded or in the wrong direction. But I think it's exactly on point. The kinds of transformations, the scale of it, the scope of it that we are dealing with are the reconstitution of the building blocks of agency. The question is where one locates the atoms and what sorts of atoms we're dealing with. For Sthiramati and Vasubandhu we're going down to the level of the atoms of control. Thank you. All right, so here's -
  • Zach Irving
    Let's talk about one atom or one klesa, that gaining control over this atom and therefore not making it a klesa anymore that's involuntary, would have a profound effect on attention. So here's one candidate, is a type of unconscious mechanism that psychologists who I think are on the right track have said is really, really important in determining how you allocate cognitive control. Right. How you when you're sort of deliberately trying to think about something, what you try and think about what you what you control is influenced heavily by this mechanism. It's an unconscious mechanism that you don't have voluntary control over, right, that you can't just choose to change at will, that you're not it's not like one of the things that, as Vasubandhu would put it, that you're like free over, that affects where you allocate control. So here's how it works, you could do lots of things at any given time. So you have a lot of different things right now, even right now, that you could don't have paying attention your breath. Right now, there's a
  • lot of different things that you could try and focus on. You could try and focus on my talk. You could try and focus on your Wi-Fi. You could try and focus on where the bathroom is. There's all these different things that you could do. You could let your mind wander. Right. There's many different candidate things that you can do. So what are you going to try and do? Well, that's partially influenced by this unconscious and involuntary mechanism. So what this mechanism does is it looks at what you're currently doing and it ascribes a certain expected value to that. It says right now, for example, let's say you're focusing on your breath instead of, well, let's just do the talk instead of the breath. Right now you're focusing on the talk. This mechanism is saying here's how valuable I think that thinking about that is. But then it compares the value of focusing on the talk to other things that you could be doing. So, for example, thinking about how to get Wi-Fi and your brain has been trained to to think that Wi-Fi is really valuable, right?
  • It's access to all the world's information, and all of your friends who aren't in the room. And so that's - your brain says that's better. Right? Like, what are you doing? Why are you paying attention to this guy? Right? You could be trying to find all of your friends in the world, right, and all the world's information. You could be focusing on how to get Wi-Fi. And when that happens, when there's a mismatch between what you're doing and some other more valuable task. How does this mechanism influence you? What it does is through the experience of mental effort. So mental effort on this model, this influential model of mind, is actually a signal from this unconscious mechanism that says what you are currently doing is not good enough. Right. Stop it. Stop paying attention to the talk, hopefully you're not getting that signal, right, your brain's like, yeah, this is good. But your brain like let's say you're focusing on your breath and you're you're me. You're a novice, you know, meditator. You're sitting there focusing on your breath and your brain is like, what are you doing? Right? You're focusing on breathing. I know how to do that. Right? You don't need to focus on breathing. You can focus on Wi-Fi, go to your smartphone. And it, the way that experience is that it feels really, really, really hard to focus on breathing. And the only way that you can keep doing it is by resisting that effort, right, through what Chandra talks about a lot. And I think he has like literally, I think the best model of this through a sort of self-control processes of of suppressing that effort over and over again. So
  • that's how an ordinary person like me could focus on something that their brain thinks isn't as good as an alternative option. OK, so, and it's even worse than this. So this is this is already makes it - so this is already really hard, right? So it means that when you're focusing on your breath, your brain is going to be constantly telling you or this this unconscious mechanism, which you can't just change at will is going to be constantly telling you, hey, there's so many better things you could be doing, do those instead. But the situation is worse because let's say that you actually do manage to convince yourself for a while, oh man my breath is so important, right, it's the source of my, it's my life force. It's what I'm trying to do right now. It's this very valuable thing. Then the mechanism for a little while isn't going to broadcast a signal of effort because it's like, yeah, OK, I agree with you. I see why you're doing this. Right. Carry on. Problem is that, here's another feature of our cognition again, this is a consistent feature of all different types of tasks performance, is that this mechanism thinks that everything decreases in value over time. Because in your evolutionary context, right, if you were sitting there trying to focus on how to get berries from a single bush and you were doing that for three hours and you hadn't succeeded yet, you
  • should stop and go to another bush. And so what this mechanism does is it tells you, look, you've been focusing on your breath for an hour. I don't know why you did it. I let you do it for a little while. Right? But you haven't succeeded yet. And it's your breath. And you're sure not going too. And so mental effort gets harder and harder the longer you focus your breath. So what you're trying to do by focusing on your breath or a single pointed object for hours is go in contrast to this fundamental neural mechanism that influences how you allocate control. This fundamental building block of agency is screaming at you to stop. So that's what you have to do in order to focus on your breath for a long period of time, that's really hard. You could do that maybe if you had superhuman self-control, but nobody does. You could just willfully resist those screaming for hours at a time. Vasubandhu and Sthiramati, say that something something different happens, in when you've achieved samadhi. What you do - this is the basic and involuntary in all of us, in me - it's a basic involuntary and unconscious process, it's a process that you're not aware that this is going on. It's
  • not voluntary, you can't control it, you can't just say, yes, it's better, and in me, it determines how you allocate all of your mental actions, right, so it's a fundamental determinant of your agency. But here, they say, is what happens in a skilled practitioner, is that you achieve some level of voluntary control over those basic valuations. Right, so as opposed to this being something that happens in your brain, that is not something you do, the valuation then becomes something you do. You gain control over this fundamental part of the control process. What would happen if you gain that kind of control? Right. And so then what you can do is, look, I have voluntary control over this. And so I'm going to tell this process that actually focusing on my breath really is important. And because I have voluntary control over, it doesn't have to degrade over time. And so then I don't have to be fighting this screaming mind in order to maintain focus on my breath. I can do it with equanimity. Equanimity.
  • I cannot say that word. I tried so many times. But, anyways, you can do that with the E-word. I’m a philosopher, I don’t know things. So, okay, you can do that. And here are the kinds of changes that would happen if you gain that kind of voluntary control. Your concentration could become single pointed, you could maintain your attention on one thing, because it's not degrading over time, because you have voluntary control over this basic constituent of the mind. Your concentration could become sustained again because it's not decreasing, your concentration could become effortless, because here you're not fighting this mechanism, right, because it's not telling you, hey, stop it, right, and you're having to suppress those feelings. You've gained control over the thing that gives you the stop signal. And more than that, it can also become generalizable, so one prediction of this model is that unlike playing the flute, say, or like playing a sport, if you get good at this, then you
  • get good at all sorts of types of cognitive control and memory mechanisms. That's why, for example, one of the first ways that Sonam and I started thinking about this is like, why the heck is it that, like Chan and Zen meditators with a totally different kind of practice, start by sitting there and focusing on their breath like, that's weird, right? One explanation might be you're gaining this generalizable skill that's useful in many, many contexts, which is gaining control over this fundamental mechanism. Right? So that's the kind of model. It's radically transforming what used to be a fundamental determinant of your agent, of your agency, a klesa, then becomes a locus of control for you.
  • And so that's what they think is oh, and that also explains why one of the features of breath, there's lots of different discussions of why the breath is the focus. Right? And maybe there's like some really cool philosophical explanations for it. Here's another explanation for it. Breathing is boring, right? It's hard to focus on it. And why do you choose a boring task? Well because in order to get good at this thing of attending to your breathing, you have to gain control over this mechanism. It's not like playing a sport or playing a musical instrument that's so salient you don't actually have to rejigger this fundamental cognitive mechanism. You have to do that. And so then you radically transform your agency in order to succeed at that. Right. So this is the kind of alternative model you get of what is so impressive in samadhi.